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Neck Pain

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 30, 2021

What Is Neck Pain?

Neck pain is any time your neck hurts. It’s a common problem with lots of causes.

Your neck has a tough job. It holds up the same weight as a bowling ball all day long. The bones at the top of your spine, along with your muscles and ligaments, support your head, which weighs about 11 pounds.

It can be a delicate balance. Things like sleeping wrong and bad posture can cause neck pain, as more than one-quarter of American adults can tell you. It isn’t usually a symptom of a more serious health problem.

What Are the Symptoms of Neck Pain?

If your neck hurts, you may notice other symptoms including:

  • Pain that gets worse when you hold your head a certain way while working on a computer, driving, or doing other tasks
  • Muscle tightness or spasms
  • Trouble moving your neck or head
  • Headache

What Causes Neck Pain?

Many things can cause your neck to hurt:

  • Poor posture
  • Repetitive motion
  • Bad sleep habits
  • Gritting your teeth
  • Carrying a heavy shoulder bag or purse
  • Pinched nerves
  • Sports injuries or other injuries
  • Car accidents involving whiplash
  • Arthritis
  • Infection
  • Tumors
  • A fractured or collapsed vertebra, which can be related to osteoporosis
  • A slipped (herniated) disk
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Narrowed spaces within your spine (spinal stenosis)

How Is Neck Pain Diagnosed?

See your doctor right away if your neck hurts after a fall or an accident, or if the pain is intense, doesn’t respond to treatment, gets worse over time, or includes numbness, weakness, or tingling and pain in your arms and legs.

Your doctor may ask:

  • When did the pain start?
  • Have you been injured?
  • Do you have numbness or weakness in your arms or hands?
  • Does moving your neck in a certain way make things better or worse?
  • Does coughing or sneezing make the pain worse?

Your doctor has many tools to figure out what’s wrong. They could order X-rays, an MRI, a CT scan, an EMG (electromyography), or blood tests.

How Is Neck Pain Treated?

Treatments could include medications called muscle relaxants, physical therapy, a padded neck collar, or traction.

In rare situations, you may need shots of cortisone or even surgery.

With treatment, your neck will usually stop hurting in a few days. Use medicines like acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen to ease pain. Put an ice pack on your neck for the first 2 to 3 days to help lower swelling. After that, use moist heat, like a hot shower or a heating pad, to help it heal. There are also exercises you can do at home (or in front of your computer at work) to gently stretch your neck muscles.

You can also visit a chiropractor or get a neck massage for short-term relief.

How Can You Prevent Neck Pain?

Fix your posture to fix your neck pain. Sit or stand with your shoulders directly over your hips and your head straight. Adjust your chair or desktop so your computer monitor is at eye level. Take frequent breaks.

Don’t tuck your phone between your ear and shoulder. Use a speakerphone or headset instead.

Try not to carry heavy bags with shoulder straps.

Try a different pillow if you’re waking up with a stiff neck. Some people find that a relatively flat one, or one with built-in neck support, works best. Sleeping on your back or side, not your belly, also allows your neck muscles and ligaments to get the rest they need.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Neck Pain," "Neck Strain."

Reference.com: “How Much Does A Human Head Weigh?”

Mayo Clinic: "Neck Pain Basics," “Neck pain,” “Osteoporosis,” “Herniated Disk,” “Spinal Stenosis.”

Cleveland Clinic: "An Overview of Neck and Shoulder Pain."

American Osteopathic Association: "Chronic Neck Pain Tip Sheet."

Spine-Health.com: “10 Tips To Prevent Neck Pain.”

National Health Service (U.K.): “Fibromyalgia.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Concussion in Sports."

CDC: "Facts About Concussion and Brain Injury."

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