Causes, symptoms and treatment of neck pain

The average head weighs around five kilograms or 11 pounds. Imagine the strain keeping that upright all day, every day can place on the seven neck vertebrae and the 20 muscles responsible for movement and support.

When you think about it, it’s no surprise that neck pain is such a common complaint.

It’s quite normal to experience a little neck pain or stiffness occasionally. It can be triggered by poor posture, overuse, or even just from sleeping in an awkward position.

But in some cases, neck pain can indicate serious injury or illness and require medical assistance. If you have neck pain that continues for more than a week, is severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms, reach out to your doctor.

Causes and treatments for neck pain

Neck strain

When the neck muscles or tendons are overexerted, they can stretch too far and tear. This injury, also called a pulled muscle, can vary in intensity depending on the tear’s size and location.

There are a few ways you can strain or pull your neck, including doing an activity that’s out of the ordinary such as lifting something too heavy or trying a new exercise. They can also be caused by poor posture, repetitive motions or a collision or fall.

Treatment

For most episodes of neck strain, over the counter medications and avoiding any additional strain to the neck is enough to manage symptoms until the injury is healed. Medical attention should be sought if the pain has worsened or not improved within a few days, or is accompanied by troubling symptoms, such as numbness or tingling in the arm, weakness in the arms or legs, or difficulty with balance.

Text neck

The rise in the use of electronic devices coincided with the rise of neck pain. When you are looking down at something for an extended period, you’re putting a lot of strain on your neck. In fact, one study found that the more you bend your neck forward and down, the more weight is exerted on your cervical spine.

At a 15-degree angle, this weight is equal to about 27 pounds, at 30 degrees it’s 40 pounds, at 45 degrees it’s 49 pounds, and at 60 degrees it’s 60 pounds.

If the soft tissues are stretched for a long period, they can get sore and inflamed.

Read: Do you have ‘text neck’?

Treatment

Try holding your device up in front of you or just look down at it with your eyes. Do some simple exercises and stretches every day that reverse the movement of looking down such as squeezing your shoulder blades together and doing chin tuck exercises. Use your hands to provide resistance and push your head against them, first forward and then backward and practice keeping your neck back and keeping your ears over your shoulders.

Nerve injuries

Sometimes called burners or stingers, these are injuries to the nerve network that provides feeling and muscle control in the shoulder, arm, forearm, hand, and fingers. The medical name for burners is brachial plexus injuries and are common sports injuries. They often feel like a sudden electric shock that shoots down your arm and dissipates quickly, but the odd feeling can linger.

With a stinger you may experience:

  • pain or an electric shock shooting down the arm
  • numbness in the arm or fingers
  • clumsiness or weakness in the hand or arm
  • a warm sensation in the affected area.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the severity; mild injuries may not need any treatment. If the mild pain or feeling persists, an ice compress, anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen, and range of motion exercises may be recommended.

A severe injury may cause paralysis of the arm and a loss of sensation and should be treated as soon as possible.

Read: A leading pain expert explains trapped nerves

Whiplash

We’ve all heard of this classic car-crash injury, caused when the neck moves rapidly back and forth like the cracking of a whip.

Aside from neck pain, with whiplash, you also may have headaches that start at the base of your skull and tingling, numbness, or pain in your upper back or arms.

Treatment

Most cases heal within a few weeks with pain medication and range of motion exercises prescribed by a professional.

Cervical herniated disc

Cervical disc herniation is a common cause of neck and upper body pain. You may feel a dull or sharp pain in the neck or between the shoulder blades, and it may radiate down into the arms, hands and fingers. Sensations such as numbness or tingling are common and certain movements can intensify the pain.

Treatment

While cervical disc herniation can be serious, not all patients require neck surgery. Non-surgical treatments such as medications and physical therapy can relieve pain and symptoms.

Cervical spine surgery may be recommended if pain and symptoms progressively worsen despite treatment.

Heart attack

Neck pain can also be a symptom of a heart attack. It often presents with other symptoms of a heart attack, such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • arm or jaw pain.

If your neck hurts and you have other symptoms of a heart attack, call an ambulance.

Read: Could this be the cause of your muscle weakness?

Other causes of neck pain

Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling of the joints, and bone spurs. When these occur in the neck area, neck pain can result.

Osteoporosis weakens bones and can lead to small fractures. This condition often affects the hands or knees, but it can also occur in the neck.

As you age, the cervical discs can degenerate. This is known as spondylosis, or osteoarthritis of the neck. The narrowing of the space between the vertebrae can be painful and add stress to your joints.

Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal column narrows and causes pressure on the spinal cord or the nerve roots as it exits the vertebrae. This can be from long-term inflammation caused by arthritis or other conditions.

Each of the conditions listed has its own unique set of symptoms and requires a different treatment approach.

Do you experience neck pain? Have you found the root cause of it? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Ellie Baxter

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