Neck pain: symptoms and causes

Your neck is a complex interlocking structure consisting of bones, joints, nerves, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Its main job is to hold up the weight of your head which, at around 5 kilograms, is no mean task. Add to this the requirement that the head must be able to move from side to side and up and down (and do these simultaneously), plus the fact that the neck has to form a conduit for the spinal cord, carry blood vessels to and from the head, and contain passageways for air and food, and you have quite a complex feat of engineering. No wonder then that our necks cause us pain and discomfort, not only on occasion, but for some people in an ongoing fashion.

The main physical structures in the neck are the seven interlocking vertebrae. They are called the cervical vertebrae, numbered C1 through to C7. C1, also known as the atlas, is the closest one to your head, followed by C2, which is also known as the axis. Each vertebra is connected to the next by facet joints, and between the vertebrae are intervertebral discs — rubbery cushions made mostly of cartilage that act as shock-absorbers.

When should I seek immediate medical treatment for neck pain?

Severe neck pain that occurs after a neck injury can be a serious problem, and you should see your doctor immediately. Also, if you have problems with neck pain and experience symptoms such as loss of bladder or bowel control, shooting pains, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms or legs, especially if these symptoms come on suddenly or get worse quickly, you should see your doctor straight away.

Neck pain and stiffness that’s associated with headache and fever can be a sign of meningitis (an infection of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord). Meningitis is a serious disease, and you should seek immediate medical treatment if you or your child are experiencing these symptoms.

Symptoms of neck pain

Symptoms of neck pain and the sensations you feel can help your doctor to diagnose the cause. Here are some symptoms.

Muscle spasm

A spasm is a sudden, powerful, involuntary contraction of muscles. The muscles feel painful, stiff and knotted. If you have neck muscle spasms, you may not be able to move your neck — sometimes people call it a crick in the neck. Your doctor or physiotherapist may call it acute torticollis or wry neck.

Muscle ache

The neck muscles are sore and may have hard knots (trigger points) that are tender to touch. Pain is often felt up the middle of the back of the neck, or it may ache on one side only.

Stiffness

The neck muscles are tight and if you spend too long in one position they feel even tighter. Neck stiffness can make it difficult or painful to move your neck.

Nerve pain

Pain from the neck can radiate down the arms, and sometimes, the legs. You may feel a sensation of pins and needles or tingling in your arms, which can be accompanied by numbness, burning or weakness. This pain is typically worse at night.

Headaches

Headaches are common in conjunction with neck problems. They are usually a dull aching type of headache, rather than sharp pain. While the headaches are often felt at the back of the head, the pain may also radiate to the sides, and even the front of the head.

Reduced range of motion

If you can’t turn your head to the side to the same degree towards each shoulder, or you feel limited in how far forward you can lower your head to your chest, or how far you can tilt your head back, you may have reduced range of motion. Your doctor will be able to test this.

Common causes of neck pain

Whiplash

This commonly follows a car accident in which the person’s car is hit from behind while it is stationary or slowing down. The person’s head is first thrown backwards and then when their body stops moving, the head is thrust forward. This type of injury can strain your neck muscles and cause ligaments in the neck to stretch or tear.

The pain from whiplash, which is usually worse with movement, does not always start immediately — it may take several days to come on. Neck pain and stiffness may be accompanied by muscle spasm, dizziness, headaches, nerve pain and shoulder pain.

Muscle strain

Ongoing overuse of your neck muscles (which can be caused by a poor neck position during everyday activities, particularly computer work) can trigger neck muscle strain, causing chronic neck pain and stiffness. The pain is often worse with movement and may be associated with headaches, muscle spasms and restriction of neck movements.

Degenerative disc disease

As we grow older, the soft gelatinous centre of the shock-absorbing discs in our spines dries out. This causes the discs to become narrowed, and the distance between the vertebrae to decrease.

Herniated disc

If the tough outside layer of one of the cervical discs tears, the soft gelatinous centre may bulge outwards — this is known as a herniated disc. Herniated discs can put pressure on nerve roots as they leave the spinal cord, causing pain in the neck as well as pain, numbness and weakness in the arms.

Cervical spondylosis

This degenerative condition of the cervical spine is due to normal ageing and wear and tear on the cervical discs and the vertebrae. It is also known as cervical osteoarthritis, and is more common among older people.

The development of bone spurs often accompanies this degeneration of the spine. Bone spurs, also known as osteophytes, are small outgrowths of bone tissue that are formed when the cartilage covering bone is worn away and bone starts to rub on adjacent bone. The bone spur is the body’s attempt to protect the bone surface. Unfortunately, the bone spur can sometimes pinch or press upon the nerve roots as they leave the spinal canal.

Symptoms associated with cervical spondylosis include neck pain and stiffness that often improves with rest. The pain may radiate to the shoulders or between the shoulder blades. If there is nerve root compression, there may be numbness, pain or weakness in the arms.

Cervical spinal canal stenosis

Degenerative changes in the vertebrae can lead to narrowing of the canal in which your spinal cord lies — this is known as cervical spinal canal stenosis. As the canal becomes narrower, it can put pressure on the spinal cord. The associated neck pain is usually worse with activity, and may radiate to the arms or legs. Arm or leg weakness can also occur. Sometimes people with cervical spinal canal stenosis have no symptoms. Occasionally, it may give rise to Lhermitte's sign — an electric shock-like feeling down the body when the neck is bent forward.

Tests and diagnosis

Your doctor may be able to determine the cause of your neck pain from your history and physical examination, but sometimes tests such as X-rays, MRI scans and CT scans are required to find the exact cause of your symptoms. These scans can assess the spine and be used to show disc problems, spinal cord problems or compression of your nerve roots.

Sometimes doctors will order electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction studies — tests that evaluate the electrical activity in nerves and muscles to help determine if there is any nerve damage related to your neck problems.

It can be difficult to identify the precise source of neck pain even after investigations. Generally, X-ray abnormalities do not correlate well with pain. Some people have severe spondylosis on X-rays, but have no pain. The key thing that your doctor should be able to tell is if the pain is involving pressure on the nerve roots or spinal cord.

Last Reviewed: 18 December 2012
myDr

References

1. Neck pain: general information (revised October 2010). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2012 Nov. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Feb 2013).
2. MayoClinic.com. Neck pain (updated 11 Sep 2012). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/neck-pain/DS00542 (accessed Feb 2013).
myDr

myDr

myDr provides comprehensive Australian health and medical information, images and tools covering symptoms, diseases, tests, medicines and treatments, and nutrition and fitness.