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Neck pain

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 minutes read

Neck pain is a very common complaint. It is estimated that over two-thirds of adults will experience an episode of neck pain at some time. In most cases, neck pain is not serious and resolves within a few days. Isolated neck pain, or simple neck pain, describes pain felt in the neck and/or around the shoulders without spreading into the arms or down the spine towards the lower back.

What can cause it?

Let's delve deeper into the causes of neck pain:

Muscle Strain

Muscle strain in the neck commonly occurs due to overuse of neck muscles, such as prolonged periods of holding the head in a fixed position (e.g., while working on a computer or reading), repetitive motions, or sudden movements that strain the muscles. Poor posture, such as slouching or holding the head forward, can place additional stress on the neck muscles, leading to strain and discomfort.

A muscle strain may present with symptoms such as localized pain, stiffness, tenderness, and limited range of motion in the neck. Practicing good posture, taking frequent breaks from prolonged sitting or screen time, and performing neck stretches and strengthening exercises can help prevent muscle strain in the neck.

Neck Injuries

Traumatic events, such as car accidents, falls, or sports injuries, can result in neck injuries that cause pain and discomfort. One common type of neck injury is whiplash, which occurs when the head is suddenly jerked backward and then forward, causing strain on the neck muscles and ligaments.

Neck injuries may present with symptoms such as neck pain, stiffness, headaches, shoulder pain, numbness or tingling in the arms or hands, and difficulty moving the neck. Treatment for neck injuries may include rest, ice or heat therapy, pain medications, physical therapy, and in severe cases, immobilization with a neck brace or collar.

Degenerative Disorders

Degenerative disorders of the spine, such as osteoarthritis, degenerative disk disease, and spinal stenosis, can lead to the breakdown of spinal structures and cause neck pain. Ageing, wear and tear on the spine over time, genetic factors, and lifestyle factors such as obesity or smoking can contribute to the development of degenerative spine conditions.

Degenerative disorders may present with symptoms such as neck pain, stiffness, reduced range of motion, radiating pain or numbness into the arms or hands, and muscle weakness. Treatment for degenerative spine conditions may include pain medications, physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, and in severe cases, surgical interventions to relieve pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

Herniated Disks

A herniated disk occurs when the soft inner core of a spinal disk protrudes through the tough outer layer, pressing on nearby nerves and causing pain. In the cervical spine (neck), a herniated disk can cause neck pain as well as radiating pain, numbness, or weakness in the arms or hands. Factors that increase the risk of developing a herniated disk include age-related degeneration of the spinal disks, repetitive lifting or bending motions, obesity, and smoking.

Symptoms of a herniated disk in the neck may include neck pain, arm pain, numbness or tingling in the arms or hands, muscle weakness, and difficulty gripping objects. Treatment for a herniated disk may include rest, pain medications, physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, and in severe cases, surgical interventions to relieve pressure on the affected nerves.

Poor Posture

Prolonged periods of sitting with improper posture, such as slouching or holding the head forward while using electronic devices, can contribute to neck pain. Poor ergonomics at workstations or during other activities can also strain the neck muscles and lead to discomfort.

Poor posture may lead to symptoms such as neck pain, stiffness, muscle tension, headaches, and reduced range of motion in the neck. Maintaining good posture while sitting, standing, and sleeping, using ergonomic furniture and equipment, taking regular breaks to stretch and move, and performing exercises to strengthen the neck and upper back muscles can help prevent neck pain associated with poor posture.

Diagnosis of neck pain

When assessing neck pain, healthcare professionals typically perform a thorough medical history and physical examination. Diagnostic tests may include:

  1. Imaging Studies: X-rays or MRI scans can provide detailed images of the cervical spine, helping identify structural abnormalities, such as herniated disks or bone spurs.
  2. Nerve Tests: Electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction studies (NCS) may be conducted to evaluate nerve function and identify any nerve compression or damage.
  3. Blood Tests: Blood tests may be ordered to rule out underlying medical conditions, such as infections or inflammatory disorders.

Preventing neck pain

To prevent or reduce the risk of neck pain, individuals can incorporate the following strategies into their daily routines:

  1. Maintain Proper Posture - Practice good posture while sitting, standing, and sleeping to minimize strain on the neck and spine.
  2. Ergonomic Adjustments - Ensure that workstations, chairs, and computer setups are ergonomically designed to support a neutral spine position and reduce strain on the neck and shoulders, especially when working from home (WFH).
  3. Stay Active - Engage in regular exercise and physical activity to strengthen neck muscles, improve flexibility, and promote overall spinal health.
  4. Take Breaks - Take frequent breaks from prolonged sitting or screen time to stretch, move, and relieve tension in the neck and shoulders.
  5. Use Proper Lifting Techniques - When lifting heavy objects or weight lifting, bend the knees, keep the back straight, and lift with the legs to avoid straining the neck and back.
  6. Avoid Tech Neck - Limit the use of electronic devices, maintain a neutral head position, and practice proper phone and computer ergonomics to prevent "tech neck" and associated neck strain.
  7. Manage Stress - Practice stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or mindfulness to alleviate muscle tension and promote relaxation.

When to see your doctor

You should seek urgent medical attention if you develop severe neck pain following an injury. You should also seek urgent advice if your neck pain has any of the following associated features:

  • Neck pain that is persistently worse at night
  • Neck pain that radiates down your arm into the hand
  • Neck pain that is associated with any limb weakness or change in your ability to walk
  • Neck pain associated with you feeling unwell with fevers, night sweats, or recent unintentional weight loss

What will your doctor do?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. In the absence of any concerning features, you may be advised to do exercises to help relieve your symptoms in addition to using simple pain medications. You may be referred to a physiotherapist. Depending upon your symptoms and your examination, you may be sent for further investigations, including blood tests, X-Ray, or MRI scans.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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