Most people will experience a minor neck problem at one time or another. Our body movements usually do not cause problems, but it’s not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear, overuse, or injury. Neck problems and injuries most commonly occur during sports or recreational activities, work-related tasks, or projects around the home.

Neck pain may feel like a “kink,” stiffness, or severe pain, and the pain may spread to the shoulders, upper back, or arms, or it may cause a headache. Neck movement may be limited, usually more to one side than the other. Neck pain can be referred anywhere from the area at the base of the skull into the shoulders.

Activities that may cause neck pain

Neck pain is often caused by a strain or spasm of the neck muscles or inflammation of the neck joints. Some examples of common activities that may cause this type of minor injury include:

  • Holding your head in a forward posture or odd position while working, watching TV, or reading.
  • Sleeping on a pillow that is too high, too flat, or doesn’t support your head; or sleeping on your stomach with your neck twisted or bent.
  • Spending long periods of time resting your forehead on your upright fist or arm (“thinker’s pose”).
  • Stress. Tension may make the muscles that run from the back of the head across the back of the shoulder feel tight and painful.
  • Work or exercise that uses your upper body and arms.

Sudden (acute) injuries

Minor neck injuries may result from tripping, falling a short distance, or excessive twisting of the spine. Severe neck injuries may result from whiplash in a car accident, falls from significant heights or sports related injuries.

Pain from an injury may be sudden and severe. Bruising and swelling may develop soon after the injury. Acute injuries include:

  • An injury to the ligaments or muscles in the neck, such as a sprain or strain. When neck pain is caused by muscle strain, you may have aches and stiffness that spread to your upper arm, shoulder, or upper back. Shooting pain that spreads down the arm into the hand and fingers can be a symptom of a pinched nerve.
  • A torn or ruptured disc. If the tear is large enough, the jellylike material inside the disc may leak out and press against a nerve or the spinal cord which is a central disc herniation. You may experience a headache, feel dizzy or sick to your stomach, or have pain in your shoulder or down your arm.

Conditions that may cause neck problems

Some neck problems may not be related to an injury.

  • Arthritis or damage to the discs of the neck can cause a pinched nerve. Neck pain caused by a pinched nerve generally affects one side of the neck and the arm on that side. Other symptoms may develop, such as numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arm or hand.
  • Meningitis is a serious viral or bacterial illness that causes inflammation around the tissues of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms come on quickly and include severe headache, stiff neck, fever, and sometimes vomiting. The neck stiffness makes it hard or impossible to touch the chin to the chest.
  • The flu, which usually is not serious, can cause symptoms similar to meningitis. When neck pain is caused by flu, the neck and the rest of the body tend to ache all over, but severe neck stiffness is absent.
  • Stress and tension may make the muscles that run from the back of the head across the back of the shoulder feel tight and painful. You may not be able to move your head without pain.
  • Torticollis is caused by severe muscle contraction on one side of the neck, causing the head to be tilted to one side. The chin is usually rotated toward the opposite side of the neck. Torticollis may be present at birth or caused by injury or disease.

Treatment

Treatment for a neck problem or injury may include first aid measures, Physical Therapy, medication prescribed by your doctor and in some cases, surgery. The course of treatment depends on the location, type, and severity of the injury, as well as your age, health condition, and activities (such as work, sports, or hobbies).

If you are experiencing neck pain, you should contact your physician. Physical Therapy can help to decrease pain, increase range of motion and strength, and get you back to the activities you enjoy.