Neck pain is discomfort in any of the structures in the neck. These include the muscles, nerves, bones (vertebrae), and the disks between the bones.
When your neck is sore, you may have difficulty moving it, especially turning to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck.
If neck pain involves nerves, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm, hand, or elsewhere.
A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Usually, everyday activities are to blame. Such activities include:
Accidents or falls can cause severe neck injuries such as vertebral fractures, whiplash, blood vessel injury, and even paralysis.
Other causes include:
For minor, common causes of neck pain:
You may want to reduce your activity only for the first couple of days. Then slowly resume your usual activities. Do not do any heavy lifting or twisting of your back or neck for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins. After 2 to 3 weeks, slowly begin exercising again. A physical therapist can help you decide when to begin stretching and strengthening exercises and how to do them.
Do not do the following during your early recovery, unless your doctor or physical therapist says it is OK:
The following steps can prevent neck pain or help your neck pain improve:
Seek medical help right away if:
Call your health care provider if:
Your doctor or nurse will perform a physical exam and ask about your neck pain, including how often it occurs and how much it hurts. Other questions may include:
Your answers help the doctor determine the cause of your neck pain and whether it is likely to quickly get better with simple measures such as ice, mild painkillers, physical therapy, and proper exercises. Most of the time, neck pain will get better in 4 to 6 weeks using these approaches.
Your doctor or nurse will probably not order any tests during the first visit, unless you have symptoms or a medical history that suggests a tumor, infection, fracture, or serious nerve disorder. In that case, the following tests may be done:
If the pain is due to muscle spasm or a pinched nerve, your health care provider may prescribe a muscle relaxant or a more powerful pain reliever. Over-the-counter medications often work as well as prescription drugs. The health care provider may prescribe a neck collar or, if there is nerve damage, refer you to a neurologist or neurosurgeon for consultation.
If your doctor or nurse thinks your neck pain may be due to meningitis, you will be sent to an emergency department for further tests and treatment.
Pain - neck; Neck stiffness
Cheng JS, McGirt MJ, Degin C. Neck pain. In: Firestein GS, Budd RC, Gabriel SE, et al., eds. Kelly's Textbook of Rheumotology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 45.
Devereaux MW. Neck pain. Med Clin North Am. 2009;93:273-284.
Gross A, Miller J, D'Sylva J, et al. Manipulation or mobilisation for neck pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 Jan 20;(1):CD004249.
Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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