What is neck pain?
Neck pain is a common condition that will affect most people at some point in their lives. Many different things can cause neck pain, which is usually not the sign of a more serious condition.
Most neck pain clears up by itself in a few days. It is very rarely a symptom of something more serious.
What symptoms relate to neck pain?
The pain often spreads from the neck towards the shoulders or upper back, and it often causes headaches. You might find the pain is worse when you hold your head in one position for a long time, for example, at a computer.
Neck pain might also come with muscle tightness or spasms, and you might not be able to move your head very well.
If you have a neck injury, you might also have dizziness, pins and needles or numbness, weakness, changes to your vision or hearing, problems concentrating or difficulty swallowing. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our neck pain and stiffness Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What causes neck pain?
Common causes of neck pain include:
- poor posture (the way your body is positioned when standing or sitting)
- sleeping in an awkward position
- injury such as a muscle strain or whiplash
- prolonged use of a desktop or laptop computer
- wear and tear in the bones of the neck, which is a normal part of ageing
Rarer causes of neck pain include:
- damage to the vertebrae, spinal cord or nerves in the neck
- a compressed nerve
- an infection
- osteoporosis related bone damage or fractures
When should I see my doctor?
You should see a doctor if:
- the pain is getting worse
- the pain doesn’t ease up in a week or so
- you have numbness, tingling or pins and needles in your arms or legs
- you start having difficulties with your bladder or bowel
- you have a fever as well as neck pain
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How is neck pain diagnosed?
Your doctor will examine you and discuss what makes the pain worse or better. If they think there may be a more serious cause of your neck pain, they may order tests like a blood test, x-ray, CT scan or an MRI.
However, usually these tests aren’t recommended because they won’t change how your neck pain is treated.
How is neck pain treated?
The best way to treat most neck pain is to keep moving your neck, stay active and adapt any activities that might be causing your pain. Over-the-counter painkillers might be recommended.
If your neck pain doesn’t go away, your doctor will investigate the cause. Serious, long-term neck pain is sometimes treated with steroid injections or, very rarely, surgery.
It might be helpful to rest your neck at first, but don’t rest it for too long. If you don’t move, the muscles will get stiffer and it will take longer for the pain to go away. It’s better to gently stretch the neck muscles. Your doctor or physiotherapist can show you how to do this gently and safely.
There are ways you can manage your neck pain:
- You can use a heat pad or an ice pack, whichever helps to relieve your neck stiffness and pain.
- You can buy anti-inflammatory analgesic cream or gel from your pharmacist.
- Make sure you have a comfortable, supportive pillow. Try sleeping with one firm support pillow rather than softer pillows to avoid stretching your neck muscles.
- Ensure your working environment is adjusted to your needs. You may need a footstool to ensure your hips and knees are level. Ask for a telephone headset if you spend a lot of time on the phone to avoid bending your neck to one side constantly. You may also need to adjust the height of your computer screen to avoid stretching your neck. Hold reading materials at eye level to avoid hunching over.
- Work on your posture — exercises such as those found in yoga or Pilates all work to improve your posture.
- Neck supports (braces and collars) are not generally recommended, unless your healthcare professional has advised you to wear one.
- Avoid activities such as lifting, pulling, punching, and repetitive bending and twisting for a few days as they can make your neck pain worse. Try not to overdo it.
- If you cannot fully move your neck left and right, you should not drive until you have regained full movement in your neck. If you can safely drive, adjust your headrest so that your head and neck are properly supported.
- Manipulating or massaging your neck can help in the short-term. You may find some physical therapies such as physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy or acupuncture of use.
Can neck pain be prevented?
The best way to prevent neck pain is to keep your spine flexible and your muscles strong. You can do this with regular exercise — 30 minutes on most days. Make sure you take plenty of breaks throughout the day to stretch.
It’s important to develop good posture especially when you’re sitting, at work or driving. Try not to slouch or to poke your chin out. A supportive pillow is also important to prevent neck pain.
Complications of neck pain
Sometimes pain doesn’t go away. Chronic or persistent pain can continue even after the original problem has healed. If this happens, you may need help to address emotional, social and environmental factors that may be contributing to your pain.
Resources and support
These websites provide more detailed information about the causes and management of neck pain.
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Last reviewed: December 2019