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Neck Pain - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

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Neck Pain - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

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Most people experience neck pain and stiffness due to poor posture, but it can result from various other causes. Learn about these causes and treatment options.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Shakti Amar Goel

Published At May 6, 2020
Reviewed AtJune 6, 2023

What Is Neck Pain?

The bones of the neck consists of seven vertebrae between the base of the skull to the torso. The cervical discs that are present between two cervical vertebrae, help in absorbing the shock between these bones. The nerves of the neck pass between the vertebrae from the respective foramen. There are various muscles, ligaments, bones, arteries, veins, thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, larynx, esophagus, and trachea present in the neck region besides the spine. The main function of the cervical spine is to provide support to the head and aid head motion.

Any abnormalities or injury in the bones or muscles in the neck can result in inflammation and neck pain. Most people experience neck pain due to poor posture, which strains the muscles. The other causes include injury, whiplash-associated syndrome, osteoarthritis, and sports injury. Neck pain is not always a serious condition, as the pain is usually relieved in some days. But in case the pain increases or precipitation of any danger signs, it is recommended to consult an orthopedic-spine surgeon immediately.

What Are the Common Symptoms Associated With Neck Pain?

Neck pain can worsen on keeping the neck positioned in one place for a long time. Neck stiffness due to muscle tightness and spasms. The ability to move the head might be affected. The other signs and symptoms associated with neck pain are:

What Causes Neck Pain?

The following are some common causes of neck pain:Muscle Sprain or Strain - It can result from poor posture, sitting with your neck bent for too long, sleeping with your neck in a bad position, and sudden jerk to the neck while exercising.Cervical Spondylosis - Degeneration of the cervical discs with age is called cervical spondylosis. This narrows the space present between two vertebrae, which can result in neck pain.Cervical Disc Herniation - Due to injury or trauma, the vertebral disk protrudes and puts pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots. This is known as cervical disc herniation or ruptured or slipped disk if it affects the vertebrae in the neck.

  1. Meningitis - The inflammation of the thin membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, generally due to infections, is called meningitis. The symptoms include fever, headache, and neck stiffness. As it can be a potentially dangerous condition, consult a doctor as soon as possible.

  2. Neck Injury - Your neck is very prone to get injured during a fall, road traffic accidents, sports, etc., as the muscles of the neck, are stretched outside their normal range.

  3. Rheumatoid Arthritis - When arthritis affects the neck region, it can result in neck pain, swelling of the joints, and bone spurs.

  4. Osteoporosis - A condition that results in bone weakness and minor fractures is known as osteoporosis. Although it commonly affects the hands and legs, but can also affect the neck.

  5. Fibromyalgia - It is a condition that results in entire body pain muscle, but more obvious in the neck and shoulder region.

  6. Spinal Stenosis - Spinal stenosis is when pressure is exerted on the spinal cord and nerve roots because of the narrowing of the spinal canal. The causes include inflammation due to arthritis, herniated disc, etc.

  7. Poor Posture - Slouching or hunching over your computer or laptop can put extra stress on the neck muscles and ligaments, resulting in neck pain.

  8. Sleeping With the Neck in an Awkward Position - If you sleep with your neck twisted at night, you might wake up with a stiff neck.

  9. Congenital Abnormalities - The following congenital conditions can result in neck pain:

    1. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome - a condition in which the nerves, veins, or arteries in the neck get compressed.

    2. Chiari Malformations (CMs) - A structural birth defect that affects the cerebellum in the brain.Spine Abscess, Tumor, or Cancer - All these conditions can also result in neck pain.

  • Bruxism - The habit of grinding your teeth. This habit can also result in neck and jaw pain.
  • Other Causes - Using a heavy shoulder bag or purse, lifting heavy objects, and pinched nerves.

When to Consult a Doctor for Neck Pain?

Generally, neck pain due to minor causes resolve with rest in about a week. But if it persists more than a week and if you have the following symptoms, then it is best to consult a doctor:

  • Pain without a cause.

  • Headache.

  • Palpable lump in the neck.

  • Fever.

  • Enlarged lymph nodes.

  • Breathing or swallowing difficulty.

  • Tiredness.

  • Numbness or tingling sensation.

  • If pain radiates to the arms or legs.

  • Bladder or bowel incontinence.

  • Any loss of neurology.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose the Cause of Neck Pain?

The doctor will conduct a physical examination, ask you about the symptoms, and take a complete medical history. You will also be asked about any recent injuries or accidents that you were involved in. If needed, the doctor will perform the following tests to rule out other conditions that can result in neck pain or stiffness:

  1. Blood tests to rule out infections.

  2. X-rays.

  3. CT and MRI scans.

  4. Electromyography to check how the muscles and the controlling nerves are.

  5. Lumbar puncture, otherwise called a spinal tap, is when the doctor collects the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to test for infections.

What Are the Treatment Options for Neck Pain?

Home Remedies:

  • Painkillers - Such as Ibuprofen, Paracetamol, and Naproxen sodium to relieve neck pain. Always consult a doctor before taking the pills to avoid any side effects.

  • Heat and cold therapy - Alternatively applying heat and cold packs for 20 minutes a few times a day will help reduce inflammation. In acute injuries, heat is not recommended.

  • Exercises - After the neck pain subsides, gently stretch your neck. Bend, tilt, and rotate your neck.

Most causes of mild to moderate neck pain generally get better with home remedies in a week or so. But in case the pain persists, the doctor might suggest the following treatment options:

Medications:

  • The doctor will suggest you take stronger painkillers and muscle relaxants.

  • Corticosteroid injections can be delivered to the joints of the cervical spine or the muscles.

  • Anesthetic medications, such as Lidocaine, are also sometimes injected to numb the painful area.

Therapy:

  • Physiotherapy - A physiotherapist will educate you on correct posture, neck alignment and strengthening exercises. They might also use electrical stimulation and other methods to relieve pain. Always consult your orthopedic surgeon before going to a physiotherapist. Some spinal ailments may worsen with only physiotherapy.

  • Immobilization - Immobilizing your neck with the help of a soft collar, might help relieve pain.

  • Traction - Your neck will be gently stretched using weights and pulleys. This has to be done under strict medical supervision.

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) - Here, electrodes are used to deliver small amounts of electrical impulses to the painful areas.

Surgery:

Surgery might be needed to relieve pressure from nerve roots or spinal cord. It is imperative to discuss the details with your surgeon before proceeding ahead.

Alternative Medicine (There is lack of scientific evidence for these therapies):

  • Acupuncture - Thin needles, which are inserted to various points in the body, are used to relieve pain.

  • Chiropractic - A chiropractor will adjust your cervical spine to provide short-term pain relief.

  • Massage - Here, the muscles in the neck are manipulated.

Prevention Tips:

Some causes of neck pain can be prevented by:

  1. Maintaining a good posture while sitting and standing.

  2. If you sit and work for long hours, make sure you take frequent breaks and stretch your shoulder and neck.

  3. Adjust your chair and table so that the monitor is at the same level as your eye.

  4. Avoid tucking your phone between your ear and shoulder. Instead, use headsets.

  5. Quit smoking.

  6. Always sleep in a proper position.

  7. Do not carry heavy bags on your shoulders.

For more information on neck pain, consult a doctor online now!

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

What Are the Different Types of Neck Pain?

There are seven types of neck pain:
- Muscle Pain - One of the most frequent causes of neck pain is muscle tears, sprains, and strains.
- Muscle Spasm - The sudden, painful, and spontaneous muscle contraction is known as a muscle spasm.
- Headaches, which are typically felt in the back of the head and the upper neck, can be brought on by muscle tension or spasms in the neck.
- Facet joint pain.
- Bone pain.
- Referred pain.

2.

What Is the Best Treatment for Relieving Neck Pain?

The treatment options include taking pain relievers like Ibuprofen, Paracetamol, and Naproxen. In addition, self-care techniques that could ease neck pain include: Switch between cold and heat. For the first 48 hours, apply cold, such as an ice pack, for up to 15 minutes several times a day to reduce inflammation. Use heat after that.

3.

Which Kind of Neck Pain Is Serious?

While many neck pain causes are harmless and go away on their own in a few days, neck pain can also indicate a serious emergency. Therefore, it is crucial to be aware of the warning signs of neck pain and to get help right away if you experience any of them. Fever and neck pain are symptoms of meningitis, a serious infection of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord that needs immediate medical attention.

4.

What Are the Causes of Neck Pain?

Depending on the cause, neck pain can last for days or years. Osteoarthritis, poor posture, spinal stenosis, pinched nerves,  herniated discs, physical and mental stress, tumors, and other medical conditions are examples of common causes.

5.

What Type of Cancer Can Cause Neck Pain?

The presence of head or neck cancer may occasionally be indicated by persistent, ongoing neck pain. A lump, swelling, or sore that does not go away could be symptoms of head and neck cancer, though they could also point to a less serious condition.

6.

Can Stress Cause Neck Pain?

The presence of head or neck cancer may occasionally be indicated by persistent, ongoing neck pain. A lump, swelling, or sore that does not go away could be symptoms of head and neck cancer, though they could also point to a less serious condition.

7.

Can Neck Pain Be Related to the Heart?

Unexpected pain in the upper back, neck, jaw, or arm are signs and symptoms of a heart attack or angina, especially if they come on suddenly and are accompanied by discomfort, shortness of breath, or sweating. In the case of angina, they might completely disappear shortly.

8.

Which Nerve Causes Neck Pain?

85 out of every 100,000 people experience cervical radiculopathy or a pinched nerve. The C7 nerve root is impacted in more than half of all cases of cervical radiculopathy. A quarter of all cases involve the C6 nerve root.

9.

How Is Neck Pain Diagnosed?

Doctors use a physical examination and medical history to identify neck pain. To find pain and discover motion issues, the doctor will feel and move the neck. The reflexes and muscle strength are also examined by doctors. The doctor will inquire about any prior whiplash or herniated-disc-related neck injuries.

10.

What Is the Best Position to Sleep With Neck Pain?

The best sleeping positions are on the back or the side if one has neck pain. These two options are less traumatic for the spine than sleeping on the stomach. However, since the preferred position is frequently established early in life, it might be challenging to change the sleeping position.
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Dr. Shakti Amar Goel
Dr. Shakti Amar Goel

Orthopedician and Traumatology

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