You may feel a knot, stiffness, or severe pain in your neck. The pain may spread to your shoulders, upper back, or arms. You may get a headache. You may not be able to move or turn your head and neck easily.
What is neck pain?
Neck pain can occur anywhere in your neck, from the bottom of your head to the top of your shoulders. It can spread to your upper back or arms. It may limit how much you can move your head and neck.
Neck pain is common, especially in people older than 50.
What causes neck pain?
Most neck pain is caused by activities that strain the neck. Slouching, painting a ceiling, or sleeping with your neck twisted, are some things that can cause neck pain. These kinds of activities can lead to neck strain, a spasm of the neck muscles, or swelling of the neck joints.
Neck pain can also be caused by an injury. A fall from a ladder or whiplash from a car accident can cause neck pain. Some less common medical problems can also lead to neck pain, such as:
- An infection in the neck.
- Narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck (cervical spinal stenosis).
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
What are the symptoms?
You may feel a knot, stiffness, or severe pain in your neck. The pain may spread to your shoulders, upper back, or arms. You may get a headache. You may not be able to move or turn your head and neck easily. If there is pressure on a spinal nerve root, you might have pain that shoots down your arm. You may also have numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm.
If your neck pain is long-lasting (chronic), you may have trouble coping with daily life. Common side effects of chronic pain include fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
How is neck pain diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and do a physical exam. He or she may also ask about any injuries, illnesses, or activities that may be causing your neck pain.
During the physical exam, your doctor will check how well you can move your neck. He or she will also look for tenderness or numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms or hands.
If your pain started after an injury, or if it doesn’t improve after a few weeks, your doctor may want to do more tests. Imaging tests such as an X-ray, an MRI scan, or a CT scan can show the neck muscles and tissues. These tests may be done to check the neck bones, spinal discs, spinal nerve roots, and spinal cord.
How is it treated?
The type of treatment you need will depend on whether your neck pain is caused by activities, an injury, or another medical condition. Most neck pain caused by activities can be treated at home.
For neck pain that occurs suddenly:
- Use a heating pad on a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 or 3 hours. Try a warm shower in place of one session with the heating pad. You can also buy single-use heat wraps that last up to 8 hours. Or you can try an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. There is not strong evidence that either heat or ice will help. But you can try them to see if they help.
- Take acetaminophen (such as Tylenol). Aspirin, ibuprofen, or another anti-inflammatory medicine can also help relieve pain.
- Avoid more injury to your neck by changing activities and habits, such as how you sit or sleep.
- Try exercises or physical therapy to help you move your head and neck more easily.
- To treat chronic neck pain, your doctor may prescribe medicine to relax your neck muscles. Or you may get medicines to relieve pain and help you sleep. You might also try massage or yoga to relieve neck stress.
- Surgery is rarely done to treat neck pain. But it may be done if your pain is caused by a medical problem, such as pressure on the spinal nerve roots, a tumor, or narrowing of the spinal canal.
Can you prevent neck pain?
- You can avoid neck pain caused by stress or muscle strain with some new habits. Avoid spending a lot of time in positions that stress your neck. This can include sitting at a computer for a long time.
- If your neck pain is worse at the end of the day, think about how you sit during the day. Sit straight in your chair with your feet flat on the floor. Take short breaks several times an hour.
- If your neck pain is worse in the morning, check your pillow and the position you sleep in. Use a pillow that keeps your neck straight. Avoid sleeping on your stomach with your neck twisted or bent.
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