Neck pain is a common discomfort. While many of its causes are treatable, pain that increases in severity and duration may lead you to wonder if it’s a symptom of cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, cancers of the head and neck account for approximately 4 percent of cancer diagnoses in the United States. They’re also more than twice as common in men and more often diagnosed in those over age 50.
Though most instances of neck pain aren’t caused by cancer, it’s important to identify the symptoms of neck cancer to find out if you should see a medical professional who can provide a proper diagnosis.
Sometimes persistent, continuing neck pain is a warning sign of head or neck cancer. Although it could also be a sign of another less serious condition, head and neck cancers might include a lump, swelling or a sore that doesn’t heal. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, this is the most common symptom of cancer.
Other symptoms of neck or head cancer may include:
- white or red patch on the lining of the mouth, gums, or tongue
- unusual pain or bleeding in the mouth
- difficulty chewing or swallowing
- unexplained bad breath
- throat or facial pain that doesn’t go away
- frequent headaches
- numbness in the head and neck region
- swelling in the chin or jaw
- pain when moving the jaw or tongue
- difficulty speaking
- change in voice or hoarseness
- ear pain or ringing in the ears
- difficulty breathing
- persistent nasal congestion
- frequent nosebleeds
- unusual nasal discharge
- pain in the upper teeth
Each of these symptoms can also be underlying causes of other conditions, so you shouldn’t immediately expect cancer if you experience them.
If symptoms persist or increase in intensity, see your doctor, who can perform the proper tests to identify any underlying medical conditions.
The most common causes of head and neck cancer are excessive alcohol use and tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco. In fact, 75 percent of cases of head and neck cancers result from alcohol and tobacco.
Other causes and risk factors of head and neck cancer include:
- poor oral hygiene
- exposure to asbestos
- exposure to radiation
Most head and neck cancers occur in the:
- oral cavity
- salivary glands
- nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
There are numerous other medical conditions unrelated to cancer that cause pain in your neck, such as:
- Strained muscles. Overuse, poor posture at work, or an awkward sleeping position can strain your neck muscles and cause discomfort.
- Cervical spondylitis. When the spinal disks in your neck experience wear and tear, which generally occurs as you age, you may experience pain or stiffness in your neck.
- Herniated discs. When the soft interior of a spinal disk protrudes through a tear in the tougher exterior, it’s called a slipped disc.
Other common causes of neck pain include:
Though pain in your neck can be a symptom of certain types of head or neck cancer, many causes may be symptoms of noncancerous medical conditions.
If your pain persists or you notice unusual symptoms, visit your doctor. They’ll evaluate your medical history and perform diagnostic tests to properly assess your symptoms and any potential medical conditions.
You can reduce the risk of head and neck cancers by stopping alcohol and tobacco use and maintaining proper oral hygiene.