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There are 22 possible causes of neck pain

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Neck Pain

Your neck (cervical spine) is made up of vertebrae that extend from the skull to the upper torso. Cervical disks absorb shock between the bones. The bones, ligaments, and muscles of your neck support your head and allow for motion. Any abnormalities, inflammation, or injury can cause neck pain or stiffness.

Many people experience neck pain or stiffness in the neck occasionally. In many cases, it is due to poor posture, normal wear and tear, or overuse. Sometimes, neck pain is caused by injury from a fall, contact sports, or whiplash.

Most of the time, neck pain is not a serious condition and can be relieved within a few days. In some cases, neck pain can indicate serious injury or illness and require a doctor’s care. If neck pain continues more than a week, is severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Causes of Neck Pain or Stiff Neck

Neck pain or stiffness can happen for a variety of reasons.

Muscle Tension and Strain

This is usually due to activities and behaviors such as:

  • poor posture
  • working at a desk for too long without changing position
  • sleeping with your neck in a bad position
  • jerking the neck during exercise

Injury

The neck is particularly vulnerable to injury, especially in falls, car accidents, and sports, where the muscles and ligaments of the neck are forced to move outside their normal range. If the neck is dislocated or fractured, the spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury caused by a sudden jerking of the head is commonly called “whiplash.”

Diseases and Conditions

Arthritis causes pain, swelling of the joints, and bone spurs. When these occur in the neck area, neck pain can result.

Osteoporosis weakens bones and can result in small fractures.

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes muscle pain throughout the body.

As you age, the cervical disks can degenerate (spondylosis), narrowing the space between the vertebrae and adding stress to the joints. When a disk protrudes, it may add pressure to the spinal cord or nerve roots. This is called a herniated cervical disk, also known as a ruptured disk or slipped disk.

Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal column narrows and causes pressure on the spinal cord. This can be due to long-term inflammation caused by arthritis or other reasons.

Symptoms of heart attack include:

  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • arm, jaw, or neck pain

If your neck hurts and you have other symptoms of heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Stiff neck is usually accompanied by fever and severe headache. Meningitis can be deadly and is a medical emergency. If you have symptoms of meningitis, seek help immediately.

In rare instances, neck stiffness or pain is caused by congenital abnormalities, in addition to infections, abscesses, tumors, or cancer of the spine.

How to Ease Neck Pain at Home

If you have minor neck pain or stiffness, take these simple steps to relieve it:

  • Apply ice for the first few days of your neck hurting. After that, apply heat with a heating pad, hot compress, or hot showers.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Take a few days off from sports, activities that aggravate your symptoms, and heavy lifting. Resume normal activity slowly as symptoms ease.
  • Exercise your neck every day. Slowly stretch your head in side-to-side and up-and-down motions.
  • Use good posture.
  • Avoid cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder.
  • Change your position often. Do not stand or sit in one position for too long.
  • Get a gentle neck massage.
  • Use a special neck pillow for sleeping.
  • Do not use a neck brace or collar without checking with your doctor’s approval. If not used properly, this can actually make the problem worse.

When to Seek Medical Care

If symptoms persist for more than a week, consult with your doctor. You should also see a doctor if you have:

  • severe neck pain without apparent cause
  • a lump in your neck
  • fever
  • headache
  • swollen glands
  • nausea and vomiting
  • trouble swallowing or breathing
  • weakness
  • numbness and tingling
  • pain that radiates down your arms or legs
  • inability to move your arms or hands
  • inability to touch your chin to your chest
  • bladder or bowel dysfunction

If you’ve been in an accident or fall and your neck hurts, seek medical care immediately.

How Neck Pain Is Treated

You doctor will perform a physical exam and take your complete medical history. Be prepared to provide specifics about your symptoms, prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements, and recent injuries or accidents, even if they don’t seem related.

Treatment for neck pain will depend on the diagnosis. Tests to determine the cause of neck pain may include:

  • blood tests
  • X-rays
  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • electromyography (EMG – a test that checks the health of muscles and the nerves that control muscles)
  • lumbar puncture (spinal tap)

Depending on the results of these tests, your doctor may refer you to a specialist. Treatment for neck pain may include:

  • ice and heat therapy
  • exercise, stretching, and physical therapy
  • pain medication
  • corticosteroid injections
  • muscle relaxants
  • neck collar
  • traction
  • antibiotics (if infection is involved)
  • hospital treatment (if a condition such as meningitis or heart attack is the cause)
  • surgery (rarely)

Alternative therapies include acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Make sure you are dealing with a licensed professional when using these methods.

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Possible Causes - Listed in order from the most common to the least.

1

Whiplash

Whiplash occurs when a person's neck is forced backward and then forward very suddenly. Whiplash results when the soft tissues–the muscles and ligaments–of your neck are extended beyond their typical range of motion.

Read more »

2

Cervical Spondylosis

Cervical spondylosis is a condition that results from the wear and tear of the cartilage and bones of the cervical spine. One sign is tingling in the shoulders and arms, and sometimes the legs.

Read more »

3

Tension Headaches

A tension headache is the most common type of headache. This type of headache can cause mild or moderate pain in the head, neck, and behind the eyes. Some patients say that a tension headache feels like a tight ban...

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4

Migraine with Aura

Migraine is a disorder characterized by repeated attacks of severe headache. Symptoms include throbbing or pulsating pain, usually on only one side of the head, and can last between four hours and three days.

Read more »

5

Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most don't require medical attention.

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6

Wry Neck (Torticollis)

Wry neck (Torticollis) is a tilted and twisted neck that can be congenital or result from muscle injury, swollen lymph nodes, ear infection, or other causes.

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7

Polymyalgia Rheumatica

Polymyalgia rheumatica is an inflammatory disorder that causes pain and stiffness in various parts of the body, including the shoulders, neck, arms, thighs, and hips. The cause of this disorder is unknown.

Read more »

8

Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, a disease in which the immune system mistakes the body's own cells for invaders. In RA, the immune system attacks the synovia, the membranes lining the joints.

Read more »

9

Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of arthritis that primarily affects your spine. It causes severe inflammation of the vertebrae that might eventually lead to chronic pain and disability.

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10

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a bone disease due to calcium loss. As a result the bones lose strength and density. People are usually unaware that they have the condition until they experience a fracture.

Read more »

11

Heart Attack Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

In the movies, heart attacks are always very obvious. In reality, heart attacks aren't always so sudden or dramatic. Read our brief overview for information about heart attacks.

Read more »

12

Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that affects the larynx. The larynx is your voice box - it contains cartilage and muscles that help you talk. This type of cancer can damage your voice. When not treate...

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13

Meningitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. This is the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis may occur when fluid surrounding the meninges becomes infected. The most common causes of meningiti...

Read more »

14

Slipped (Herniated) Disk

Your spinal column is made of up 26 bones (vertebrae) that are cushioned by disks. The disks protect the bones by absorbing the shocks from daily activities like walking, lifting, and twisting. Each disk has two parts-...

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15

What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by unexplained pain in muscles and joints throughout the body. Read our doctor-reviewed articles and learn about fibromyalgia now.

Read more »

16

Spinal Stenosis

The spine is a column of bones. It provides stability and support for the upper body. It enables us to turn and twist. Spinal nerves run through openings in the vertebrae and conduct signals from the brain to rest o...

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17

Paget's Disease of the Bone

A typical human skeleton consists of 206 bones. Bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. If this process is altered, bones can break down and re-form abnormally and in ways that compromise the integrity o...

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18

Polio

Polio (also known as poliomyelitis) is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. Children younger than 5 years old are more likely to contract the virus than any other group...

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19

Subarachnoid hemorrhage

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) refers to bleeding within the subarachnoid space, which is the area between the brain and the tissues that cover the brain. The subarachnoid space is the space through which th...

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20

Vertebrobasilar Circulatory Disorders

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

An intricate web of blood vessels supply the brain with oxygen and vital nutrients. A group of arteries known as the vertebrobasilar arteries feeds the back (posterior) of the brain. Vertebrobasilar arteries ar...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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