Your neck is made up of vertebrae that extend from the skull to the upper torso. Cervical discs 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 occasionally. In many cases, it’s from poor posture or overuse, or by sleeping in an awkward position. Sometimes, neck pain is caused by injury from a fall, contact sports, or whiplash.
Most of the time, neck pain isn’t a serious condition and can be relieved within a few days.
But in some cases, neck pain can indicate serious injury or illness and require a doctor’s care.
If you have neck pain that continues for more than a week, is severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Neck pain symptoms can
Symptoms of neck pain may include:
- Stiff neck. People with neck pain often describe feeling as though their neck is “stiff” or “stuck.” Neck pain can sometimes cause a decreased range of motion.
- Sharp pain. Neck pain may feel like sharp or “stabbing” pain that is localized to one area.
- Pain when moving. Neck pain is often exacerbated by moving, twisting, or extending your cervical spine, either from side to side or up and down.
- Radiating pain or numbness. Your neck pain may radiate to your head, trunk, shoulder, and arms. If your neck pain involves the compression of a nerve, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in either of your arms or hands. Neck pain that is from a pinched nerve may feel like a burning or sharp pain that starts at the neck and travels down the arm. Talk with a doctor if you experience this symptom.
- Headache. Pain that starts in your neck may also produce a headache called a cervicogenic headache. Neck pain with a headache may also be a symptom of a migraine headache.
- Pain when palpated. Neck pain may increase if your cervical spine is palpated (physically examined).
Neck pain or stiffness can happen for a variety of reasons.
Muscle tension and strain
This is usually from 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 your neck during exercise
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 of their normal range.
If the neck bones (cervical vertebrae) are fractured, the spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury from sudden jerking of the head is commonly called whiplash.
Neck pain can also be a symptom of a heart attack. It often presents with other symptoms of a heart attack, such as:
- shortness of breath
- arm or jaw pain
If your neck hurts and you have other symptoms of heart attack, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. In people who have meningitis, they may experience:
- stiff neck
- sensitivity to light
Meningitis can be fatal and is a medical emergency
If you have the symptoms of meningitis, seek medical help immediately.
Other causes of neck pain include the following:
- Rheumatoid 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 lead to small fractures. This condition often happens in hands or knees, but it can also occur in the neck.
- Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes muscle pain throughout the body, especially in the neck and shoulder region.
- As you age, the cervical discs can degenerate. This is known as spondylosis, or osteoarthritis of the neck. This can narrow the space between the vertebrae. It also adds stress to your joints.
- When a disc protrudes, as from a trauma or injury, it may add pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. This is called a herniated cervical disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc.
- Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal column narrows and causes pressure on the spinal cord or the nerve roots as it exits the vertebrae. This can be from long-term inflammation caused by arthritis or other conditions.
In rare instances, neck stiffness or pain occurs due to:
- congenital abnormalities
- cancer of the spine
If symptoms persist for more than a week, consult a doctor. Also see a doctor if you have:
- severe neck pain without apparent cause
- a lump in your neck
- swollen glands
- trouble swallowing or breathing
- 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.
A doctor will perform a physical exam and take your complete medical history. Be prepared to tell them about the specifics of your symptoms. Also let the doctor know about all prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements you’ve been taking.
Even if it doesn’t seem related, let your doctor know about any recent injuries or accidents you’ve had, too.
Treatment for neck pain depends on its cause. In addition to a thorough history and physical exam by your doctor, you may also need one or more of the following imaging studies and tests to help your doctor determine the cause of your neck pain and make a diagnosis:
- blood test
- CT scan
- MRI scan
- electromyography, which allows your doctor to check the health of your muscles and the nerves that control your muscles
- lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
Depending on the results, 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
- antibiotics if you have an infection
- hospital treatment, if a condition such as meningitis or heart attack is the cause
- surgery, which is rarely necessary
Alternative therapies include:
Make sure you’re seeing a licensed professional when using these methods.
If you have minor neck pain or stiffness, take these simple steps to relieve it:
- Apply ice for the first few days. After that, apply heat with a heating pad, hot compress, or by taking a hot shower.
- Take OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- Take a few days off from sports, activities that aggravate your symptoms, and heavy lifting. When you resume normal activity, do so slowly as your symptoms ease.
- Exercise your neck every day. Slowly stretch your head in side-to-side and up-and-down motions.
- Practice good posture.
- Avoid cradling the phone between your neck and shoulder.
- Change your position often. Don’t stand or sit in one position for too long.
- Get a gentle neck massage.
- Use a special neck pillow for sleeping.
- Don’t use a neck brace or collar without your doctor’s approval. If you don’t use them properly, they can make your symptoms worse.
Many people experience neck pain because of poor posture and muscle strain. In these cases, your neck pain should go away if you practice good posture and rest your neck muscles when they’re sore.
Make an appointment with a doctor if your neck pain isn’t improving with home treatments.