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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 may radiate down an arm. The pain can be dull or feel like an electric shock into your arm. Certain other signs and symptoms, such as numbness or muscle weakness in an arm, can help pinpoint the cause of your neck pain.

Causes

Some causes of neck pain include:

  • Carrying a heavy backpack or purse on one shoulder
  • Cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis)
  • Cervical spondylosis
  • Cradling your phone between your shoulder and neck
  • Emotional stress
  • Meralgia paresthetica
  • Herniated disk
  • Meningitis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Poor posture
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sleeping on your abdomen or with too many or too few pillows
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Tension headache
  • TMJ disorders
  • 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 and needs only conservative treatment at the most. Neck pain that continues longer than several weeks usually will still respond to exercise, stretching, physical therapy, massage and watchful waiting, but steroid injections or even surgery are occasionally indicated.

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

  • Ice or heat. Apply an ice pack or bag of frozen peas to your neck for 15 minutes three or more times a day. Taking a hot shower or bath can help relax strained muscles.
  • Stretching. Stretch your neck muscles by turning your neck gently from side to side and up and down.
  • Massage. Rubbing the sore places in your neck can help relieve muscle spasms.
  • 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.

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, 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.
  • High 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: August 15th, 2015

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