Neck pain can occur in people of all ages, even children. Minor pain is usually the result of a muscle strain or injury, but it’s important not to ignore your child’s complaints. In some cases it can be a sign of a more serious illness. Neck pain in children and adolescents has not been widely or systematically studied. But according to a 2014 article in Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, conditions like back and neck pain are one of the leading causes of disability in adolescents, and up to 25 percent of the cases affect participation in school or physical activities. Learning how to check for injuries and being aware of possible causes of neck pain is an important skill to have as a parent. It will help you determine when it’s best to see a doctor. Many minor neck injuries are treatable at home and should resolve in a few days.

Causes of neck pain

Neck pain in children can have multiple causes. If your child is active or participates in sports, it’s possible they experienced a muscle strain or sprain during one of their activities. Neck pain may also be caused by a traumatic event such as a car accident or fall. Often poor positioning during sitting or sleeping, computer use, or carrying a heavy backpack are risk factors for increased neck pain. Swollen glands reacting to an infection may also cause neck pain. According to an article in Chiropractic and Manual Therapies, back and neck pain have been shown to be common in children, but the pain is usually mild and temporary. Some children may be more severely affected, and mild pain may gradually move to more areas of the spine and become more intense, often leading to musculoskeletal problems in adult life.

When is it more serious?

More serious but rare causes of neck pain or stiffness include:
  • meningitis
  • tick bites
  • cancer
  • rheumatoid arthritis
If neck pain or stiffness occurs with other symptoms of meningitis, such as fever, irritability, headache, sensitivity to light, poor feeding, nausea or vomiting, or rash, it’s important to seek help immediately. According to a 2006 article in The Lancet, meningococcal disease can quickly progress from initial symptoms to severe symptoms or death. Early diagnosis by a medical professional is crucial. Another cause of neck pain is Lyme disease. This is often contracted and spread through tick bites. Always inspect the neck area for signs of a bug bite. You will often see a red area or rash around the bite mark. Children may also have symptoms that include:
  • nausea
  • weakness
  • headache
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fever
  • muscle and joint pains
If your child has a traumatic neck injury such as a car accident or fall, seek immediate medical help.

Inspecting the neck for injuries

If the injury presents as mild and has no traumatic onset, you can do an inspection of your child’s neck and shoulders at home before heading to the doctor. After inspecting their skin for signs of trauma, such as bruising, redness, swelling, or warmth, have your child sit in front of you looking straight ahead. Tell them to tilt their head to one side, then to the other. Ask them if they have any pain or if it’s worse on one side. Have them look up and look down, identifying areas that cause pain or stiffness. You should also look for signs of muscle weakness when your child is playing or eating. Ask your child if they are feeling any numbness, tingling, or weakness in the neck, upper back, or arms. If any of these are present, seek medical attention right away. Your child may not be able to communicate when they are in pain. Look for signs of discomfort or weakness like not turning their head to one side, difficulty sitting still or sleeping, or difficulty using arms during activities. These can occasionally point to neck pain, weakness, or nerve injury.

At-home treatments for minor neck injuries

Conservative treatments for muscle pain or strain include applying ice or a moist heat pack for 10 to 15 minutes several times per day. Rest and avoidance of aggravating activities are best until the pain resolves. You can also instruct your child to gently stretch their neck by tilting their head to one side until they feel a stretch, holding this position for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side. They can also do a similar stretch by tilting their head to look into their armpit and using their hand to gently pull their head down until they feel a stretch. Other stretches include gentle head circles in both directions, and shoulder rolls forward and backward. Deep breathing and relaxation techniques can also help relieve tension in the shoulders and neck, which may be contributing to pain. Using pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help temporarily decrease the pain due to strain or sprain. Limiting your child’s screen time may be a way to prevent neck pain and other problems as they get older. A 2006 study in the European Journal of Public Health identified an association between the increase in computer-related activities with a rise in neck-shoulder and low back pain in adolescents. They found that the risk of neck-shoulder pain increased when computer use was two to three hours a day or more.

The takeaway

The next time your child complains of neck pain, be sure to observe any other symptoms. If the pain is severe, the result of a traumatic incident, or is accompanied by other symptoms, be sure to seek medical help right away. If your child frequently complains of neck pain, it may be the result of poor ergonomics, a school bag that is too heavy, or poor posture while using a computer or tablet. Always inform your pediatrician and seek a referral to physical or occupational therapy to help prevent reoccurring neck pain.