Numbness in your neck might feel like your neck is tingling or like it’s “asleep.” It’s usually caused by an issue with the spinal cord or other nerves. In some cases, it may be caused by conditions like migraines or multiple sclerosis.
There are many potential causes of neck numbness, many of which also cause neck pain. Most are treatable, but may require a doctor’s visit.
Discs are the cushions between vertebrae. They have a soft center and a harder outside layer. With herniated discs, also called slipped discs, some of the soft center comes out through the outside layer, which can irritate nearby nerves. This usually happens in the lower back or neck.
Normal aging is the most common cause, but heavy lifting with improper form can also herniate a disc. When the nerves in the neck are irritated by a disc, it can cause numbness around the neck and shoulders.
Other symptoms of a herniated disc include:
- weakness in the body parts served by affected nerves
- numbness or tingling in the body parts served by affected nerves
- arm or leg pain, depending on the location of the herniated disc
A pinched nerve occurs when a nerve in your neck gets compressed or irritated where it branches away from the spinal cord. It may happen because of an injury, or from changes in your spine as you age.
Pinched nerves usually respond to over-the-counter pain medication and physical therapy, but may require surgery.
Other symptoms include:
- muscle weakness in your arm and hand
- numbness in your arm and hand
- pain that radiates into your shoulder
Cervical stenosis is a condition in which your spinal canal is too narrow for the spinal cord and nerves. This can cause damage to the spinal cord and nerve roots. It may be caused by:
- degenerative arthritis
- having smaller than average bones that line the spinal canal
- rheumatoid arthritis
- having the ligament that runs down the spinal cord increase in size
Other symptoms include:
- neck pain
- numbness in your arms or hand
- pain on one or both arms
- electrical sensation in your spine when you move your head
Neck injuries, such as a sports injury or whiplash from a motor vehicle collision, can cause other symptoms, including:
- arm and shoulder pain
- facial pain
A neck injury can be serious. See a doctor as soon as possible if you injure your neck.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a central nervous system disease that damages myelin, the substance that surrounds nerve fibers. This stops or disrupts messages in the central nervous system. The causes of MS are unknown.
Other symptoms of MS include:
- issues with walking or gait
- numbness and tingling throughout your body
- vision problems
Infections like meningitis and the flu can cause neck numbness. Meningitis causes inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms come on suddenly and should be immediately evaluated by a doctor.
Other symptoms of infection that can cause neck numbness include:
- body aches
- neck stiffness (severe in meningitis)
Nerves in the neck can be damaged by disc issues, such as a herniated disc. They can also be damaged by a spinal cord injury or long-term side effects of certain medications. These are serious health issues that require immediate treatment from a healthcare professional.
Nerve damage may also cause issues with walking and moving.
Arthritis in the neck, also called cervical spondylosis, is a common, age-related condition. It often causes no noticeable symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they might include neck pain and stiffness than improves when resting or lying down.
Migraines are recurring headaches that cause moderate to severe throbbing pain, especially on one side of the head. Researchers think they may have a genetic cause, but are often triggered by certain habits or environmental factors.
There are four phases of migraine, with different symptoms:
- Prodrome. This occurs about 24 hours before a migraine and includes early signs and symptoms like food cravings or mood changes.
- Aura. You might see flashing or bright lights and have muscle weakness. It happens right before or during a migraine.
- Headache. During the migraine itself, you might have nausea, pain on one side of your head, and increased sensitivity to light and noise.
- Postdrome. You might feel exhausted or weak for up to a day after your headache.
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety can cause the muscles in your neck and shoulders to tense. This can cause pain, numbness, and other neck issues. Moving your head may be painful.
Some causes of neck numbness also cause numbness in nearby areas of the body. Below are several symptoms related to neck numbness, and their potential causes.
Numbness in neck and shoulder
- stress and anxiety
- pinched nerve
Numbness in neck and jaw
A stroke is a medical emergency. Call or have someone else call 911 and seek immediate help. If you think you have a lump in your jaw, you should see a doctor immediately.
Numbness in back of neck and head
- pinched nerve
Neck pain with arm numbness or tingling
- pinched nerve
- cervical stenosis
- herniated disc
To diagnose the cause of your neck numbness, a doctor will ask about your general health, if you’ve had any recent injuries, and whether you have other symptoms. They’ll then do a physical exam, and see how well you can move your neck, head, and arms.
If a doctor suspects an infection, they might do a blood test. They might also order imaging tests, including:
- electromyography (EMG) or a nerve conduction study to see if your nerves are functioning normally
- MRI or CT scan to see if you have damage to soft tissues, such as a hernia, and to look at your bones
- X-ray to look at your spine
There are many treatments for neck numbness. Some can be done at home, and others require a doctor’s supervision or recommendation.
- Use good posture.
- Avoid carrying heavy bags on your shoulder.
- Adjust your desk and chair so your computer monitor is at eye level when sitting.
- Sleep in a position that aligns your head and neck with the rest of your body.
- Quit smoking (this can be difficult, but a doctor can help you come up with a plan that’s right for you).
- Relieve stress and anxiety.
- Apply ice and heat.
The following stretches can also help relieve pain and numbness in your neck and shoulders:
- Neck stretch. Place your hand on the top of your head and gently pull to the side of the hand holding your head. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
- Chin tuck. Put your fingers on your chin and gently press in so you have a “double chin.” Hold for three to five seconds, then relax. Repeat.
- Neck bend. Gently move your chin towards your chest. Pause and return to the starting position. Repeat five to 10 times.
- over-the-counter pain medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- muscle relaxants
- physical therapy
- corticosteroid injections or oral corticosteroids
- nerve block
Surgery can treat some conditions that cause neck numbness, such as cervical stenosis, a severe pinched nerve, or herniated disc. However, it should not be considered without first trying conservative treatment, like rest, heat and ice, and physical therapy.
Potential surgeries include spinal fusion and disc replacement.
Many causes of neck numbness are treatable with home treatments like rest and practicing good posture. However, others can be serious. If you have neck numbness that at-home remedies don’t help, see a doctor to rule out more serious conditions.