Pain in the neck? Seven of the most common causes of neck pain explained.
If you have ever been in a car accident where you were rear-ended, and you woke up with neck pain the next day, the cause was probably obvious: you likely suffered from whiplash. Other times, the cause of neck pain may be more mysterious. You might wake up with a “crick” in your neck, or have noticed mild neck pain worsen over time.
Understanding the cause of your neck pain is the first step in determining the best way to treat it. Here are seven of the most common causes of neck pain:
- Whiplash. When you are hit from behind in a car, your head is thrown forward and backward quickly, which can damage muscles, ligaments, discs, and nerves in the neck. Whiplash injuries can also result from a sports accident, physical abuse or other trauma. Whiplash is not a medical diagnosis, however, but an event or episode that can lead to any number of diagnoses from a strain to a herniated disc, or something more serious.
- Neck strain or sprain. Strains and sprains can result from a fall or sudden twist of the neck. A neck strain occurs when a muscle or tendon in your neck has been irritated by overuse or overextension. In a neck sprain, the ligaments one of more of the joints in the neck has been overstretched or overloaded. Neck strains and sprains can be mild, moderate, or severe depending on the extent of the injury.
- Cervical fracture. A break in one of the bones in your neck (cervical vertebrae) is known as a cervical fracture. This may be caused by an injury such as a fall or motor vehicle collision. Treatment depends on a number of factors, including your age, your medical history, and the extent of damage to your spine. If a fracture destabilizes your neck, you may need to wear a brace to keep your cervical spine from moving.
- Cervical fracture. Overuse injuries, stress, poor posture, or poor sleeping position. Repetitive tasks or movements that involve the upper body and arms can cause a sore neck over time. Sitting hunched over your computer too long while stressing about a tight deadline can also be a culprit. Sleeping with your neck twisted at an odd angle or using pillows that are either too full or too flat may cause you to wake up with a sore or stiff neck.
- Cervical degenerative disc disease. Over time, the discs in your cervical spine – the neck’s natural “shock absorbers” – can wear down and degenerate. This causes the space between vertebrae to narrow, and the nerves to become pinched. Cervical disc degeneration typically causes a low-level chronic neck pain and intermittent episodes of more severe pain and instability.
- Herniated disc. A herniated disc – sometimes called a bulging, protruding, or ruptured disc – occurs when the soft substance that is normally contained to the inside of the disc escapes. It often presses on a nerve root, causing nerve-related symptoms such as weakness, numbness, a burning sensation, or a shooting pain down one arm.
- Illnesses. Neck pain can be a regular symptom of the common cold or the flu. However, some serious illnesses, such as meningitis or cancer, can cause neck pain.
Often a neck injury will resolve by itself with rest and over-the-counter medications. However, if your pain continues for a week or more, you may want to see a doctor. In some cases, your primary care provider will refer you to a pain specialist or a doctor who specializes in neck injuries.
Important: If you or someone you are with has severe neck pain or loss of movement or feeling after an accident, seek medical help immediately.
Rathi Joseph, DO is a pain management physician at PRC Alliance Pain Relief Centers. She is triple board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, sports medicine, and pain management. To learn more, visit Dr. Rathi Joseph’s profile.