Neck pain is a general term used to describe any type of pain that occurs in the bones, muscles, nerves, or other tissues or structures located in the neck area. In most circumstances, the underlying cause of neck pain is not medically significant. However, in some cases, this type of pain can indicate the presence of a serious problem that requires rapid medical attention.
The neck contains seven bones (vertebrae), which together form a section of the spinal column called the cervical spine. Like the rest of the spinal column, the neck vertebrae provide support for the body and also form a protective channel for the spinal cord. Nerves branch from this cord, pass through openings in and between the vertebrae and conduct vital signals between the brain and body.
A sac-like structure called a disc sits between each adjoining vertebra and cushions the spine from physical shock, in addition to preventing bone-on-bone contact. On the outside surfaces of the vertebrae, thick connective tissues called ligaments help hold the bones in their proper place. These ligaments also attach to the major neck muscles, which surround the spinal column and perform essential functions that include supporting neck movement, holding the head erect and contributing to the maintenance of overall body posture.
Neck Pain Causes
If you overuse your neck muscles, you can develop a form of neck pain called a muscle strain. Repeated overuse of these muscles can lead to the onset of chronic or ongoing neck pain. Potential causes of neck muscle strain include improper movement of the neck during exercise and poor posture during everyday activities such as reading, sleeping, driving, working at a desk or using a computer.
You can also develop neck pain if your nerves don’t have enough room to pass through the spaces in and between the vertebrae. Potential sources of this problem, called nerve compression, include arthritis-related bone growths, called bone spurs, and an age-related stiffening of the protective vertebral discs. In some cases, neck pain can also stem from an abnormal protrusion of the soft material in the interior of a spinal disc; this condition is commonly called a disc herniation.
Other potential sources of neck pain include falls, injuries or other accidents that impact the neck either directly or indirectly, as well as osteoarthritis-related wear and tear, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis-related fractures, fibromyalgia, meningitis and other spinal infections, a degenerative disease called spondylosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal called stenosis and certain types of cancer.
Neck pain can range in intensity from minor to severe. Severe pain in the aftermath of an accident, fall or other injury can sometimes indicate the presence of dangerous nerve or structural damage. People who experience severe neck pain in these circumstances require immediate medical care. In addition to severe pain, other neck injury-related symptoms that require rapid medical attention include shooting pain that extends into the arm or shoulder, alterations in normal bowel or bladder function, strength loss or numbness in the hands or arms, and pain that leaves you unable to lower your chin to your chest.
Neck pain not related to an accident or injury can also require medical care. Symptoms to look for here are similar to those for injury-related damage, and include ongoing or severe pain, radiating pain in the arms or legs, or pain that occurs in combination with tingling, numbness, muscle weakness or headaches.
Treatments for neck pain vary with the severity and underlying cause of the pain. Common first steps for relatively minor problems include nonprescription painkillers, temporary suspension of exercises or other physical activities, short-term applications of a heat or cold source, massage, short-term use of a restrictive soft collar, gentle stretches or range-of-motion exercises and exercises designed to improve posture. Beside nonprescription painkillers, potential medication options include prescription oral painkillers and injected painkillers such as corticosteroids or lidocaine, as well as muscle relaxants and tricyclic antidepressants.
Other potential treatment options for neck pain include supervised physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, biofeedback, acupuncture, electrical stimulation and bed-bound traction supplied through a system of weights and pulleys. In rare circumstances, people with nerve or spinal cord compression may need to undergo some form of neck surgery.