Neck pain: Symptom

Definition

Neck pain is a common problem, affecting many adults at some time in their lives. Neck pain can involve just the neck and shoulders, or it might radiate down an arm. The pain can be dull or feel like an electric shock into the arm. Some symptoms, such as numbness or muscle weakness in an arm, can help pinpoint the cause of neck pain.

Causes

Some causes of neck pain include:

  • Cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis)
  • Cervical spondylosis
  • Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Herniated disk
  • Meningitis
  • Muscle strains
  • Myofascial pain syndrome
  • Osteoarthritis (disease causing the breakdown of joints)
  • Poor posture
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (inflammatory joint disease)
  • Sleeping in awkward positions or with too many or too few pillows
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Tension headache
  • Trauma from accidents or falls
  • Whiplash

When to see a doctor

Neck pain caused by muscle tension or strain usually goes away on its own within a few days. Neck pain that continues longer than several weeks often responds to exercise, stretching, physical therapy and massage. Sometimes, you may need steroid injections or even surgery to relieve neck pain.

To help relieve discomfort, try these self-care tips:

  • Ice or heat. Apply cold, such as an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel, for up to 15 minutes several times a day during the first 48 hours. After that, use heat. Try taking a warm shower or using a heating pad on the low setting.
  • Stretching. Stretch your neck muscles by turning your neck gently from side to side and up and down.
  • Massage. During a massage, a trained practitioner kneads the muscles in the neck. Massage might help people with chronic neck pain from tightened muscles.
  • Good posture. Practice good posture, especially if you sit at a computer all day. Keep your back supported, and make sure that your computer monitor is at eye level. When using cell phones, tablets and other small screens, keep your head up and hold the device straight out rather than bending your neck to look down at the device.

Schedule an office visit

Call your doctor if you have neck pain that:

  • Worsens in spite of self-care
  • Persists after several weeks of self-care
  • Radiates down your arms or legs
  • Is accompanied by headache, weakness, numbness or tingling

Seek emergency medical care

Call 911 or your local emergency number or have someone drive you to the emergency room if you have severe neck pain that's associated with:

  • Traumatic injury. Examples include car collisions, diving accidents or falls.
  • Muscle weakness. Weakness in an arm or leg or trouble walking may be a sign of a more serious problem.
  • Fever. If you have severe neck pain with a high fever, you might have meningitis, an infection of the membrane covering your spinal cord and brain.

Last Updated Aug 31, 2022


© 2022 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. Terms of Use