Neck pain can be due to something as simple as sleeping funny or something as serious as meningitis. Find out what might be causing your discomfort.
Your neck works hard. Not only does it have the burden of holding up your head–which weighs as much as 10 to 12 pounds–it’s also responsible for moving it constantly, up, down, right, left, and around. Your neck doesn’t have as much padding as the rest of your spine, so, not surprisingly, it’s vulnerable to aches, pains, and other issues.
Luckily, most neck pain will go away on its own with a few easy adjustments in how you sit or move. Other cases might require over-the-counter pain remedies, physical therapy, or more intense treatments. Of course, if your aching neck continues to hurt, do get it checked out.
“If you have persistent or escalating neck pain, you should see your primary care physician,” says Richard C. Naftalis, MD, a neurosurgeon with Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. The same goes if the pain radiates into your arms or legs or if you notice weakness, numbness, or tingling radiating into your arms or legs.
Here are the most common reasons you might have pain in your neck and how to deal with it (hopefully without too much trouble).
Degenerative disk disease
Also called spondylosis, degenerative disk disease is one of the hazards of getting older. The disks in your spine have a soft, jelly-like center and sit between the neck bones to serve as shock absorbers. As you age, the center of the disk can degenerate, affecting the structure of the rest of the spine. Symptoms may include not just neck pain but also neck stiffness, headaches, and muscle spasms. Many people, though, don’t have any symptoms at all.
In addition to age (it’s more common after age 40), risks for degenerative disk disease include trauma, injury, family history, smoking, depression, anxiety, and repetitive neck movements.
Many experts will recommend physical therapy as well as over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen. Massage and heat or ice therapy can help, and, for more severe cases, cervical collars, steroid injections, or even surgery may be needed.
Who hasn’t had neck strain, especially in today’s screen-saturated world?
This kind of neck pain is musculoskeletal, Dr. Naftalis says. “You overuse the muscles [by] holding your head in a certain position for a period of time,” he says, like to stare at a computer all day. Neck strain can also come from carrying a heavy backpack or purse, cradling the phone between your shoulder and your ear, or holding a baby–anything that might shift your posture and have you staying in one position for a while.
“It’s not the position itself but the time spent in that position,” says Karen Litzy, DPT, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “Sitting ramrod straight, which some people think is good posture, doesn’t mean you’re not going to get neck pain.”
Sleeping funny can cause neck pain, but hopefully not in your regular bed. “Sleep is an issue if you’re on a couch, recliner, plane, or car,” says Charla Fischer, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Avoid neck strain by moving around frequently so you’re not in one position too long. “I tell patients ‘just move,’” Litzy says. “Your next posture is always your best posture.”
Working on your core strength (with exercises like planks) can help, too. Again, pain relievers might come in handy, along with massage, heat, and ice.
You may also have neck pain from directly injuring your neck. Whiplash is a common neck injury, often caused by a car crash or sports accident.
“Any type of whiplash injury can cause strain or pain to the neck,” says Litzy. “If you’re moving at a high velocity, you can [injure] your neck.”
Help protect yourself by wearing a seatbelt while driving or riding in a car, and always use protective sports gear. Staying in shape can help too; a strong upper body and core can prevent neck pain, says Litzy, also the owner of Karen Litzy Physical Therapy in New York City.
If the inner jelly of those shock-absorbing spinal disks bulges or ruptures, it’s called a herniated disk, and this can irritate nearby nerves and cause neck pain, explains Dr. Fischer, who is also a spine surgeon at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital in New York City. Herniated disks can be a consequence of either aging or injury.
Although a herniated disk can cause neck pain, it’s more likely to lead to arm pain, Dr. Fischer adds.
Either way, the most important thing you can do is not freak out, says Litzy. A herniated disk is rarely as scary as it sounds. “The most important thing to know about a herniated disk is that they can heal,” she says.
Keep moving–walking is one of the best activities–and continue your upper-body exercises, she advises. If the pain doesn’t resolve, your doctor might suggest physical therapy or over-the-counter or prescription medications. It’s rare to need surgery for a herniated disk.
Tension headaches aren’t so much a cause of neck pain as they are a result of neck pain, although it can be tough to tell which comes first. “You can get muscular discomfort from having a headache because the muscles tense up,” says Dr. Naftalis.
Many tension headaches are caused by strain in the suboccipital muscles located at the base of your skull. The initial muscle strain can come from poor work ergonomics, eye strain, grinding your teeth, or from a trauma or injury.
Make sure the upper half of your computer monitor is in line with your eyes and that you’re not leaning forward or squinting all day, says Litzy. You shouldn’t have to stretch to reach either your keyboard or your mouse. And make sure you get up and move at least every 45 minutes.
TMJ refers to the temporomandibular joint, which enables you to open and close your jaw.
TMJ damage can cause neck pain along with headaches, ear pain, trouble opening your mouth, and a clicking or popping sound when you move your jaw. The damage itself may come from an injury, excessive teeth grinding or gum chewing, stress, or arthritis.
Some easy fixes: Don’t chew gum, eat soft foods, and apply heat to your jaw for half an hour at least twice a day. Make sure there’s nothing else causing your pain, too; often people with TMJ problems have another disorder, like fibromyalgia, says Dr. Fischer.
When the jelly filling of a spinal disk herniates and oozes out of its casing, the vertebrae on either side get closer together and may develop bone spurs. These bony growths can pinch a nearby nerve, causing pain and sometimes also weakness or numbness. Often the pain will start in the neck and travel down the arm. Pain from a pinched nerve may also be accompanied by tingling, pins and needles, weakness, or numbness.
In older people, a pinched nerve is often the result of normal wear and tear. In younger people, it’s more likely to come from an injury or trauma. And, like a herniated disk, it’s often not as severe as it may sound. Medication and physical therapy typically can ease the symptoms.
Pinched nerves often get better on their own, but if they don’t, ask about cervical collars, physical therapy, medications (including steroids), or surgery for very severe cases.
You may associate osteoarthritis–age-related wear and tear of the cartilage at the ends of bones–with your knees and hips, but it can also affect your neck. It’s actually a common cause of neck pain in older patients, says Dr. Fischer.
Many people with osteoarthritis in their necks don’t have any symptoms, while others have neck pain. Still others experience numbness, muscle weakness, headaches, and loss of balance.
Try to handle osteoarthritis pain with exercises (even though this seems counterintuitive), especially exercises to improve your range of motion, like stretching. Many people also benefit from NSAIDs and physical therapy.
Rheumatoid arthritis is different from osteoarthritis. It’s not linked with age but with an abnormality in your immune system that causes it to attack your joints. Rheumatoid arthritis can involve pain not only in your neck but in any other joint as well. The pain is usually worst in the morning or after any other times you’ve rested.
If it’s not treated, inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent joint damage. Exercise helps with this type of arthritis as well. There are also new anti-rheumatic drugs to stave off damage to your joints.
Neck stiffness (more so than neck pain) is one of the major symptoms of meningitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord. The infection is usually caused by a virus, though bacteria and fungi can also be responsible. Fortunately, meningitis is rare, and there are other symptoms that signal the condition, including severe headache, nausea, fever, confusion, sensitivity to light, and seizures.
Severe symptoms and certainly symptoms like these that occur in tandem are a reason to go to the emergency room or at least see a doctor.
Fibromyalgia is a generalized pain syndrome that affects many different parts of your body, including your neck. Pain may be the most pronounced symptom, but it’s not the only one. Fibromyalgia symptoms also include extreme fatigue, mental cloudiness, clumsiness, headaches, anxiety, and depression.
No one knows exactly what causes fibromyalgia, although it may have to do with how your brain processes pain signals. There’s no specific treatment for the disorder, although some prescription nerve pain medications including duloxetine and pregabalin do show promise. Aerobic exercise tends to help people with fibromyalgia feel better. Physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, and cognitive behavioral therapy may also help.