Why Does My Neck Hurt?

Why Does My Neck Hurt?

We all cope with aches and pains and bumps and bruises occasionally. Discomfort and stiffness can literally be a pain in the neck and impact our ability to tackle everyday tasks, sports, and hobbies. What causes neck pain - and what can you do to treat and prevent it?

A complex system of bones, ligaments, and muscles in your neck supports your head and gives you range of motion. Vertebrae extend from the base of your skull to your upper torso, and their job is to absorb shock between the bones, providing a cushion for the spinal column. It’s common to experience some pain or stiffness once in a while: even “sleeping wrong” or slumping can cause this.

Often, neck pain is not serious and will resolve itself within a few days. However, there are other circumstances where it can signal serious injury or illness. Before we get into that, let’s learn about some common causes of neck pain:

  • Muscle tension and strain. Whether it’s hunching over your computer all day, practicing poor posture, or jerking your neck while working out, your muscles can become inflamed and irritated. This is very common.
  • Injury. Car accidents, sports, collisions, and other such injuries can force the neck’s ligaments and muscles to move outside their normal range. If cervical vertebrae are fractured, it can cause damage to the spinal cord.
  • Heart Attack. We often associate heart attacks with shooting pain in the left arm or tightness in the chest. Neck pain can also be an indicator. Typically, though, you will experience other symptoms as well, such as nausea, sweating, shortness of breath, vomiting, and arm or jaw pain.
  • Meningitis. This is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord becomes inflamed. Neck pain is often present, along with fever and headache. 
  • Medical Conditions. Those with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, spondylosis, herniated cervical discs, or spinal stenosis may experience neck pain.

In more rare cases, neck pain can be caused by congenital abnormalities, infection, tumors, or cancer of the spine.

When Do You Need to See a Doctor?

As mentioned, neck pain is not generally serious in and of itself. For example, if you slept in an uncomfortable position or slouched at your desk, it will typically resolve itself relatively quickly. However, do see a healthcare professional if:

  • Your symptoms last longer than one week.
  • You have severe pain without an apparent cause.
  • You have been in an accident, suffered a fall, or received a sports-related injury.
  • You have a lump in your neck.
  • Your neck pain is accompanied by fever, headache, swollen glands, nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing, difficulty swallowing, numbness, or tingling.
  • The pain radiates down into your arms or legs.
  • You cannot move your arms or hands.
  • You cannot touch your chin to your chest.
  • You experience bowel or bladder dysfunction.

How Do You Treat Neck Pain?

If you do experience any of the symptoms above and see your doctor, he or she will do a thorough physical exam. Be sure to explain your symptoms clearly and in detail. Your doctor may order:

  • Blood tests
  • X-rays 
  • CT scans
  • MRI scans 
  • EMG (electromyography records the electrical activity of muscle tissue)
  • Spinal tap (this is more common in those suspected of having meningitis or cancer)

Depending on the cause and nature of your neck pain, there are several treatment options, including:

  • Good old ice and heat
  • Physical therapy
  • Pain medication
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Neck collar
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Antibiotics (for infection)
  • Treatment for your specific medical condition (e.g meningitis, heart attack)
  • Massage therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Surgery (rarely necessary)

Be sure to follow your physician's instructions carefully. 

What About Minor Neck Pain? 

Minor pain or stiffness can be a hassle, but it’s relatively easy to treat. Apply ice for the first few days. After that, use heat. A heating pad, compress, or nice shower will relieve symptoms. Also:

  • If safe for you, take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Do not aggravate your symptoms - now is a good time to take a few days off sports, heavy lifting, and other similar activities.
  • Each day, slowly and gently stretch your head side-to-side and up-and-down. 
  • Avoid sitting or standing in one position for too long.
  • Try a neck pillow for a more comfortable night’s rest. 
  • Don’t use a neck collar or brace unless your physician has approved it and shown you how to use it. They can actually make the problem worse!

Chiropractic care has been shown to relieve discomfort and stiffness, and, just as importantly, strengthen and condition muscles and ligaments in order to avoid pain and injury. Treatment is non-invasive and does not require drugs, offering a safe and effective complement or alternative to medical intervention. Visit Beth EL Wellness & Chiropractic to start on your path to healing.