The neck is exposed to injury and disorders that cause significant pain because it supports the weight of the head while also having a significant amount of motion.
The neck (cervical spine) is composed of vertebrae that begin in the upper torso and end at the base of the skull. The vertebrae, ligaments and muscles provide stability to the spine.
Neck pain may result from abnormalities in the soft tissues, such as the muscles, ligaments and nerves; however, the bones and discs of the spine can also cause pain. Most commonly, neck pain is caused by soft-tissue abnormalities due to injury such as a neck sprain or from prolonged wear and tear. In rare cases, infection or tumors may cause neck pain. Additionally, neck pain may be the source of pain in the upper back, shoulders or arms.
Because the neck is so flexible it is prone to injuries in car accidents, contact sports and sudden falls. These accidents can cause neck hyperextension (a backward motion of the neck beyond normal limits) or hyperflexion (a forward motion of the neck beyond normal limits). A neck sprain or tear can also occur in one or more of the soft tissues in the neck.
Cervical disc degeneration, also called spondylosis, can also be a source of neck pain. This happens when the normal gelatin-like center of the disc degenerates and the space between the vertebrae narrows. This causes further wear and degenerative disease. The cervical disc may also put pressure on the spinal cord or nerve roots when the rim of the disc weakens, called herniated cervical disc. Severe neck injuries with a fracture or dislocation may damage the spinal cord and cause paralysis.
- Pain in the neck that worsens with movement
- Muscle spasms and pain in the shoulder
- Numbness in the arm or hand
- Neck stiffness and decreased range of motion
- Tingling or weakness in the arms
When to Seek Medical Treatment for Neck Pain
If severe neck pain occurs after an accident a trained professional should immediately immobilize the patient to avoid the risk of further injury. Immediate care should also be sought when an injury causes pain in the neck that radiates down the arms and legs.
For many people, neck pain is a temporary condition that disappears with time. If you have not experienced an extreme injury, you should seek medical care when neck pain is:
- Accompanied by headaches, numbness, tingling or weakness
To determine why you are experiencing neck pain, your physician will ask you for a complete medical history, have you describe symptoms and conduct a physical examination. An X-ray or MRI is usually necessary to confirm the diagnosis