Your neck is made up of nerves, bones, joints and muscles, all of which work together with the brain and the spinal cord to support the head with strength and stability.
Neck pain is common — as many as 15 percent of US adults have experienced neck pain lasting at least one day — and it can be caused by any of a number of problems in the neck. Neck pain and discomfort may present with a range of symptoms, including stiff neck, sharp or stabbing pain, soreness or tenderness, or pain that radiates into the shoulder, head, arm and hand. In some cases, nerve irritation originating in the neck can cause pain in the back and legs, as well.
Other more problematic symptoms associated with problems in the neck can include:
- Weakness, tingling or numbness in the shoulder, arms or fingers
- Difficulty gripping or lifting objects
- Problems walking or maintaining balance and coordination
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
In many cases, minor, acute neck pain will resolve in a matter of hours or a few days. Neck pain that persists or worsens over time can interfere with daily activities and sleep and warrants a trip to your doctor.
Causes of neck pain
There are many possible causes of neck pain, including:
Injuries: Your neck could be injured in a car wreck, or while playing sports or performing other physical activities.
Muscle strains: Spending too many hours hunched over a computer or smartphone can trigger muscle strains in the neck. Reading or watching TV in bed and gritting your teeth can also cause neck pain due to muscle strain.
Worn joints: The joints in our bodies tend to break down with age, and the neck is not exempt from that process. Osteoarthritis may develop, or bone spurs may form that affect motion and cause pain.
Nerve compression: Herniated disks or bone spurs that develop in the vertebra of the neck can cause pressure on the nerves, resulting in pain.
Diseases: There are some diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer, that can cause neck pain.
What you can do about neck pain
Knowing the cause of your neck pain is the first step to treating it. Most mild types of neck pain can be resolved at home with self-care over the course of a few days or weeks. If neck pain persists, your doctor may recommend medications or therapy to help relieve pain. In more serious cases, steroid injections or surgery might be necessary.
If you are suffering from minor neck pain, here are a few measures you can take to get relief:
Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers can help ease pain associated with minor muscle strains or injuries.
Alternate heat and cold. If inflammation is causing your pain, applying cold, such as an ice pack, for 20 minutes several times a day can help. Alternating cold with heat, such as a heating pad on low or a warm shower, may also help loosen stiffness and reduce pain.
Do home exercises. Gentle stretches, such as neck rolls and shoulder rolls, can help ease pain associated with joint and muscle stiffness. Before doing these exercises, try warming your neck with a heating pad or warm shower or bath.
If you are experiencing neck pain that lasts more than a few days, or if your pain is severe or debilitating, contact your doctor today for an evaluation.