Have you ever slept in an awkward position and woke up with a neck so stiff you could barely look down to tie your shoes, or spent a day hunched over a desk only to stand up and realize how badly it hurt your neck? If you have, chances are you simply stretched, took some painkillers and hoped for the pain to disappear by morning — or at least by the end of the week.
However, there are times when neck pain is a deeper issue than just poor posture. In these cases, the issue likely won’t go away, and it might even get worse unless you seek medical treatment. Read more to learn about whether your neck pain needs an ice pack and a day of rest or a doctor’s appointment.
Since many people in the modern world look down at their phones or electronic devices, tech (or text) neck is an informal name for the neck pain and stiffness caused by constantly looking down.
The average human head weighs between 10 to 12 pounds and looking down places anywhere from 50 to 60 pounds of pressure on the neck. This excess pressure, especially when exerted over extended periods of time, may lead to neck pain.
Headaches can lead to neck pain, too. These particular headaches usually stem from heightened emotional stress or extended periods of muscle tension.
A strained or sprained muscle in the neck is another common cause of neck pain. These strains may occur from sports injuries, awkward sleeping or sitting positions, carrying heavy objects or even sudden movements that place excessive strain on the neck muscles.
Whiplash is just as the name indicates — an injury that occurs when the head whips violently back and forth or from side to side. This movement stretches the muscles, vertebra, nerves and ligaments in the neck, sometimes leading to neck pain and stiffness. Whiplash can result from any instance of the neck being violently “whipped” around, most commonly from auto accidents. It can also happen with contact sports, such as football.
Infants and children run a much higher risk of severe injury from whiplash because their heads are large compared to the rest of their bodies and their necks are relatively weak. Due to this weakness, they may suffer whiplash from being shaken too hard. While adults usually heal from whiplash with time and mild treatment, infants and children can experience permanent nerve damage or brain trauma that delays their development. Untreated whiplash in adults may lead to loss of sensation or movement.
If adults suffer a severe injury that could potentially lead to whiplash, they should seek medical treatment to make sure the whiplash isn’t too severe and evaluate any other injuries. Infants suffering from whiplash require immediate medical treatment because their bodies are so much more delicate.
Although you may not give it much thought, there’s more to your joints than a single hinge. A durable tissue called cartilage protects the bones in your joints. This cartilage covers the areas where two or more bones meet, preventing them from rubbing together and damaging each other.
Osteoarthritis is a condition that develops over time and is most often found in the middle-aged to elderly. When the cartilage between the joints wears down over time, becoming thin and damaged, it creates friction between the bones when the joints move. Osteoarthritis can also inflame the synovial membranes. These membranes normally allow for smooth joint movement but become warm, swollen and tender when inflamed.
Osteoarthritis causes inflammation, pain, stiffness and swelling at the joints. It can affect the elbows, knees and neck. This condition gets worse over time due to the constant friction of moving joints. Treatment is usually tailored to the individual’s medical history and needs, sometimes including anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy.
Fibromyalgia is the leading cause of musculoskeletal pain in the U.S. While it’s not yet known what causes fibromyalgia, the symptoms may be triggered by an emotionally or physically traumatic event or come on slowly with no apparent trigger.
This condition causes chronic, widespread muscle pain, sleep disorders, memory problems, fatigue and tenderness at select parts of the body, including the neck. Fibromyalgia symptoms vary between patients and some symptoms may lie dormant for extended periods of time. Untreated fibromyalgia can lead to severe emotional distress and should be treated as quickly as possible. While there’s currently no known cure, you can manage fibromyalgia with certain medications, such as pain relievers and antidepressants.
Your nerves are responsible for your ability to feel physical sensations, such as temperature, touch and pressure. If a nerve is pinched between bones or other tissues, it can cause sudden, seemingly unexplained pain. Pinched nerves in the neck may come from spinal compression, the degradation of cartilage over time or a slipped spinal disc.
A tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue caused by cells multiplying too fast. Tumors are split into two classifications — benign and malignant.
A benign tumor may continue to grow but it won’t spread to the surrounding tissue, and it’s harmless until it becomes too large or interferes with other bodily functions.
A malignant tumor, however, will invade other tissues, sometimes traveling through the lymph nodes or bloodstream to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors are often cancerous and fatal if untreated.
Both brain and spine tumors can cause stiffness or pain in the neck. There are two types of pain-causing spinal tumors — primary and secondary. Primary spinal tumors originate in the spine and are often benign. Secondary tumors originate in other parts of the body and spread to the spine. These tumors are cancerous.
Tumors, especially malignant ones, must be treated by a professional. If you feel a lump in your neck, consult your doctor as soon as possible to determine if it’s a benign or malignant tumor.
If your neck pain stems from a serious issue, such as a car accident, you should seek professional medical treatment as soon as possible. However, in the case of mild muscle aches or sprains, it’s possible to treat your neck pain at home without a trip to the doctor’s office.
Depending on the type of injury, you can apply a hot compress or an ice pack to your neck. Heat is good for soothing pain, relaxing tense muscles and easing muscle spasms, while ice numbs pain and reduces swelling. Always wrap the ice pack in a cloth instead of applying it directly to your skin.
If your neck isn’t strained, gentle stretches can help to loosen stiff neck muscles.
Gentle neck massaging can help to unwind stiff and tight neck muscles.
If you received your injury while working or playing a contact sport, continuing those activities will only put you at risk of further injury. Resting your neck will give it time to heal and ensure the injury doesn’t worsen.
If poor posture caused your neck pain in the first place, correcting your posture will help keep the injury from getting worse or happening again. Make sure you’re not hunched in your seat while you’re working, and try to sleep in a position that doesn’t crane your neck awkwardly.
When Is Neck Pain Serious?
Let’s say your neck pain has just started. You’re unsure about whether you can attempt to treat it at home or if you should nip any potential issues in the bud and visit the doctor. How can you tell if your neck pain is serious? Luckily for you, there are a few telltale signs.
Depending on your injury and rate of healing, it may take a while for neck pain to go away. However, if it persists for longer than three weeks, that’s usually a sign that the cause is more severe than a simple sprain.
Tingling and numbness in your neck, arms or other parts of your body can be a sign of nerve damage, especially when paired with general pain.
There’s no such thing as pleasant neck pain. However, if the pain is so severe that it keeps you up at night or prevents you from functioning, it may be a sign of a greater issue.
Brain or spinal tumors sometimes cause neck pain. If you have a history of cancer and suddenly experience neck pain, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a professional.
As you get older, you run the risk of developing age-based conditions like osteoarthritis. Neck pain past the age of 50 may be a sign of something more serious.
If you’re in a severe accident, such as a car collision or sports-related incident, you’ll most likely see a medical professional anyway. If the accident left you with severe neck pain or stiffness, be sure to visit your doctor.
Not every medical issue is related to your neck pain. However, if you start experiencing neck pain at the same time as other symptoms that don’t appear to have a cause, such as incontinence, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. A high fever, difficulty breathing and muscle weakness may indicate a medical emergency.
If your neck pain meets any of the above criteria, you’ll want to see a doctor as soon as possible. However, not every doctor can help with your specific neck pain.
Chances are you don’t want to go from one practitioner to the next until you find the correct one. So which doctor should you see for your neck pain?
Your primary care physician is the doctor you see for yearly check-ups and common issues. If you’re unsure about the cause of your neck pain and don’t know which specialist to see, or if you think it’s severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit but not an emergency, your primary care physician is a good place to start.
A chiropractor deals with bone alignment and muscle stiffness. If you’re suffering from acute neck pain, such as the kind caused by tight muscles or a pinched nerve, a chiropractor should be able to help alleviate the symptoms. They’re good doctors to see for certain sports injuries or injuries caused by strained muscles. However, chiropractors can’t help with neck pain caused by chronic diseases or fractures.
An orthopedist is a doctor that specializes in the skeletal and muscular systems, including surgeries, casts and braces. They can help with severe sprains, fractures and deformities, as well as conditions such as osteoarthritis. If your neck pain stems from a chronic joint condition, a fracture, or a torn or stretched muscle or ligament, they may be able to help.
A neurologist specializes in the brain and nervous system. If your neck issue stems from a brain tumor, spinal tumor or some form of nerve damage, a neurologist is the doctor to see. They can also help with certain headache disorders, which can be helpful if your headaches cause neck pain.
If your neck pain stems from something more severe, your doctor may decide to run some tests to find the root cause. There are several types of tests available, depending on what the issue may be.
An X-ray allows doctors to see your bone structure and joints. This view will help determine if your neck pain is caused by a fracture, a growth, a bone spur or another skeletal issue.
MRIs use radio waves and a magnetic field to create images of your bones, soft tissues and nerves. These images show if there’s any nerve damage, tumors, inflammatory conditions or other issues that don’t show up on traditional X-rays. MRIs can even detect brain damage.
CT scans use X-rays taken from many different angles. This scan creates a detailed cross-section of your internal neck structure, showing your bones, soft tissues and blood vessels. CT scans detect more subtle or complex issues than a plain X-ray.
Neck pain is an all-too-common occurrence in the modern world. Whether it’s due to poor posture, an injury or an underlying medical issue, severe or lasting neck pain should be treated by a professional to avoid further damage.
If you’re suffering from neck pain but unsure where to go, consider the Desert Institute for Spine Care (DISC). DISC is a recognized leader of endoscopic spine care located in Phoenix, AZ.
We prioritize patient care and offer the least invasive medical options possible for your circumstances, with surgeons that graduated in the top 1% of their respective medical schools. Contact us today and take the first step to becoming pain-free.