Your neck connects your head to your torso. In the front, your neck starts at the lower jaw and ends at the upper chest.

Pain in this area can be due to many possible conditions. Most causes are minor and don’t require attention. Usually, it’s caused by a sore throat or muscle cramp.

In rare cases, it might indicate a serious condition like a heart attack or cancer. You might also have front neck pain after an accident or injury.

Let’s look at the causes of pain in the front of your neck, and when you should see a doctor.

The possible causes of neck pain range in type and severity. To determine what you have, take note of your other symptoms.

Sore throat

Typically, front neck pain is caused by a sore throat. This is usually due to a minor condition, such as:

You might also get a sore throat from:

  • dry air
  • allergies
  • air pollution

The symptoms of a sore throat depend on the specific cause. In addition to pain in the front of the neck, it can lead to:

  • scratchiness
  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • pain when swallowing or talking
  • swollen tonsils
  • hoarse voice
  • white patches on your tonsils

Swollen lymph nodes

Another common cause is swollen lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes are small, oval-shaped structures that contain immune cells. They help keep you healthy by filtering out germs like bacteria and viruses. Lymph nodes are located throughout your body, including your neck.

When you’re sick, the immune cells in your lymph nodes can multiply as they fight germs. This can make the lymph nodes in your neck swell, causing pain and discomfort.

Swollen lymph nodes may be caused by:

Along with front neck pain, swollen lymph nodes can cause:

  • ear pain
  • runny nose
  • tenderness
  • soreness
  • fever
  • sore throat

Cramp

Neck cramps are the sudden, spontaneous tightening of one or more muscles in your neck. They’re also known as neck spasms.

When a neck muscle suddenly contracts, it can make the front of your neck hurt. Possible causes for muscle cramps include:

  • overexertion
  • dehydration
  • extreme heat
  • extreme temperature changes
  • sleeping in an awkward position
  • emotional stress

Other symptoms of neck cramps include:

  • stiffness
  • weakness
  • shoulder pain
  • headache

Muscle strain

A muscle strain happens when muscle fibers are stretched or torn. It’s sometimes called a pulled muscle.

In the neck, muscle strains usually occur due to overuse. This might be caused by activities like:

  • bending over a smartphone
  • looking up for too long
  • sleeping in an awkward position
  • reading in bed

You may have front neck pain, especially if you strain a muscle in the side of your neck. Other symptoms include:

  • shoulder pain
  • headache
  • soreness
  • difficulty moving your head

Whiplash

Whiplash is an injury where your head suddenly moves forward, backward, or sideways. The abrupt movement can damage the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the neck.

The injury can happen during a:

  • motor vehicle collision
  • fall or slip
  • blow to the head

You can develop pain in your neck, including the front area. Other symptoms include:

  • difficulty moving your head
  • stiffness
  • tenderness
  • headache

If you were in a collision, visit a doctor immediately.

Heart attack

A less common cause of front neck pain is a heart attack. The pain from your heart can travel to the front part of your neck.

While some heart attacks appear suddenly, others begin slowly. It’s important to get emergency help even if you have mild symptoms.

Medical emergency

If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 and go to the nearest emergency room. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • pressure or squeezing in the chest
  • pain in the jaw, back, or stomach
  • pain in one or both arms
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweat
  • nausea

These symptoms can appear with or without chest pain.

Cancer

In rare cases, pain in the front of the neck indicates cancer. This may be due to swollen lymph nodes or a tumor in the area.

The following types of cancer can cause front neck pain:

  • Throat cancer. Throat cancer can affect the throat, voice box, or tonsils. It can cause pain in the neck and throat, especially when you swallow.
  • Esophageal cancer. In cancer of the esophagus, swallowing problems can lead to neck pain. Sometimes, it also causes chest pain, which may radiate to the neck.
  • Thyroid cancer. Symptoms of thyroid cancer may include swelling and pain in front of the neck. The pain can spread to the ears.
  • Lymphoma. Lymphoma, or cancer of the lymphatic system, causes swollen lymph nodes. If it develops in your neck, you may have pain and discomfort.

Carotidynia

The carotid arteries bring blood to your brain, scalp, face, and neck. You have one carotid artery on each side of your neck.

Carotidynia happens when the carotid artery is painful and tender. It’s a rare condition that can cause pain in front of the neck.

Scientists don’t fully understand what causes carotidynia. However, the condition has been associated with:

  • taking certain drugs
  • viral infections
  • chemotherapy
  • migraine

Other possible symptoms include:

  • throbbing over the carotid artery
  • tenderness
  • ear pain
  • pain when chewing or swallowing
  • difficulty turning your head

When you see a doctor, they’ll do various tests to diagnose your neck pain. This might include:

  • Medical history. A doctor will ask questions about your lifestyle and physical activity. They’ll also want to know if you’ve had an injury and when you started feeling symptoms.
  • Physical exam. During a physical exam, a doctor will check your neck for tenderness and swelling. They’ll also examine your shoulders, arms, and back.
  • Blood test. A doctor might test your blood for signs of infection.
  • Imaging tests. If the doctor suspects a serious cause, or if you were in a vehicle collision, they might have you get an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan. These tests let them examine the bones and tissues in your neck.

Mild neck pain won’t stop you from doing daily activities. In this case, you probably won’t need to see a doctor. The pain will likely go away on its own.

But if your neck pain is severe, or if it doesn’t go away, see a doctor.

You should also seek medical help if you have:

  • neck pain after a collision or injury
  • neck pain that gets worse
  • headache with nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light
  • trouble moving your arms or fingers
  • balance problems
  • problems with bladder or bowel control

Front neck pain is usually caused by a sore throat or muscle cramp. Depending on the cause, the pain should get better within 1 or 2 weeks.

If you were recently in a vehicle collision, or if you think you’re having a heart attack, seek medical help immediately. You should also see a doctor if the pain gets worse or doesn’t go away.