The neck or cervical spine is a coordinated network of nerves, bones, joints, and muscles directed by the brain and the spinal cord. It is designed for strength, stability, and nerve communication. However, because it is less protected than the rest of the spine, the neck can be vulnerable to injury and disorders that produce pain and restrict motion. For many people, neck pain is a temporary condition that disappears with time. Others need medical diagnosis and treatment to relieve their symptoms.
The most common causes of neck pain are soft-tissue abnormalities due to injury (a sprain) or prolonged wear and tear. In rare instances, infection or tumors may cause neck pain. In some people, neck problems may be the source of pain in the upper back, shoulders, or arms.
Common causes of neck strains and sprains include:
Sleeping in wrong position. Often referred to as a “crick” in the neck, a person might wake up in the morning with neck pain due to sleeping in an awkward or atypical position that overextended the neck.
Sports injury. A person could move the neck suddenly and/or in an unusual way in a new sport, or a player could have a collision or fall. A common sports collision injury is a stinger, which happens when nerves in the neck/shoulder are impacted and pain, numbness, and weakness can radiate down the shoulder, arm, and hand.
Poor posture. Whether it’s at work, home, and/or commuting, poor posture can lead to neck problems. If a person’s head is often tilted forward for long periods of time, then the neck’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments need to work harder. Poor posture can be problematic during any number of activities, including working at a computer, watching TV, riding the train, reading a book, gardening, and more. Text neck, for example, is an increasingly common problem that develops in anyone who spends hours looking down at the phone while texting.
Repetitive motions. Turning the head in a repetitive manner, such as side to side while dancing or swimming, may lead to overuse of the neck’s muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Holding the head in unusual position. Anything that requires holding the head in an unusual way for long periods of time could cause neck strains and sprains. Some examples include having a long conversation while cradling a phone between the head and shoulder, or spending an afternoon looking up at an air show.
Whiplash. In a whiplash injury, the head and neck are forced suddenly backward and immediately forward with a great deal of force. The soft tissues along and near the cervical spine can be torn or ruptured as a result. This type of injury commonly occurs in an auto accident that involves a rear-end collision.
Neck pain is considered chronic when it persists for more than 3 months. These conditions tend to stem from problems in the cervical spine either with a facet joint or disc.
When Should You Seek Medical Care?
If severe neck pain occurs following an injury (motor vehicle accident, diving accident, or fall), a trained professional should immobilize the patient to avoid the risk of further injury and possible paralysis. Medical care should be sought immediately.
Immediate medical care should also be sought when an injury causes pain in the neck that radiates down the arms and legs.
Radiating pain or numbness in your arms or legs causing weakness in the arms or legs without significant neck pain should also be evaluated.
If there has not been an injury, you should seek medical care when neck pain is:
Continuous and persistent
Accompanied by pain that radiates down the arms or legs
Accompanied by headaches, numbness, tingling, or weakness
Neck pain that persists for months could signal an underlying medical cause that needs to be addressed, and in some instances early intervention may be necessary for the best results.
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