Understanding neck pain

Many people describe neck pain as having a “stiff neck” or a “sore neck”. Your neck pain can include the muscles nerves, bones (vertebrae) and the disks between the bones. Neck pain can happen at any age and sometimes goes away on its own. There are some cases of neck pain that will need medical treatment.

Patient showing neck pain

What are the symptoms of neck pain?

If you have neck pain you may also have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Stiffness
  • Numbness
  • Weakness in your arm, hand or elsewhere

What are the causes of neck pain?

Besides injury and accidents, there are several types of sports or activities that can cause neck pain. Lifestyle and certain types of disease can also have a strong role in neck pain. The following are common causes of neck pain:

  • Bending over a desk for a long period or a computer monitor that’s too high or too low
  • Poor posture, especially while watching TV or reading
  • Sleeping in a position that’s uncomfortable
  • Twisting and turning the neck in a jarring manner when you’re working out or exercising
  • Sit-ups with straight legs, leg lifts when lying on your stomach
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Osteoporosis

When should I see my doctor?

Doctor and patient smiling

You should see your doctor if it’s been 1 week and you’re still suffering from neck pain. You should also see your doctor if:

  • You feel numbness, tingling or weakness in your arms or hands
  • You find swollen glands or a lump in your neck area
  • You have difficulty swallowing or breathing in addition to your neck pain
  • You find your neck pain gets worse when you lie down or if it wakes you up when you’re sleeping
  • You lose control over your urination or bowel movements

Get immediate medical help if:

  • Your neck pain is because of a blow, or injury – and you can’t move your arm or hand
  • Your neck is so stiff you can’t touch your chin to your chest and you have a fever and headache - these may be signs of meningitis
  • You have shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, or arm or jaw pain – in some cases these may be symptoms of a heart attack

What treatments are available for neck pain?

Before treatment

At your appointment your doctor will likely ask how long you’ve had your neck pain, when did it start and have you done anything recently that might have hurt your neck. Some other questions you may be asked are:

  • Is your pain in the front, back, or side of your neck?
  • Is it painful all the time or does the pain come and go?
  • Do you have any accompanying symptoms like numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or hand?
  • Do you have swollen glands or a lump in your neck?
  • Can you touch your chin to your chest?

Once you’re diagnosed

You can ask your doctor to recommend neck exercises to help your pain. Outside of those exercises, some other recommended treatments may include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – these include topical NSAIDs such as diclofenac gel as well as the ones you take by mouth such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Prescription pain relievers
  • Physiotherapy

Lifestyle tips for neck pain

There are some simple things you can do to help you protect your neck and avoid neck pain in the future.

  • Make sure you’re sleeping in a comfortable position that doesn’t strain your neck
  • If you work at a desk often – adjust your computer to eye level, make sure your chair is at the right height and stretch once an hour
  • Use relaxation techniques to relieve stress and tension in your neck
  • Use a headset when you’re on the phone
  • Practice good posture
  • When your reading, hold your material at eye level

Always consult with your physician before starting a new exercise regimen or routine.

If you have any other aches or pains, you may find the tips in the Muscle Pain section helpful.