During the physical exam, your doctor will check for tenderness, numbness and muscle weakness. He or she will also ask you to move your head as far as it can go forward, backward and side to side.
In some cases, your doctor may order imaging tests to get a better picture of what might be causing your neck pain. Examples include:
- X-rays. X-rays can reveal areas in your neck where your nerves or spinal cord may be pinched by bone spurs or a bulging disk.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. CT scans combine X-ray images taken from many different directions to produce detailed cross-sectional views of the internal structures of your neck.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRIs utilize radio waves and a strong magnetic field to create especially detailed images of bones and soft tissues, including the spinal cord and the nerves coming from the spinal cord.
However, many people have X-ray or MRI evidence of structural problems in their neck without experiencing any symptoms. So it can be difficult to determine if your symptoms are actually being caused by what shows up on imaging studies.
If your doctor suspects that your neck pain may be related to a pinched nerve, he or she may suggest electromyography (EMG). This test involves inserting very fine needles through your skin into a muscle to determine whether specific nerves are functioning properly.
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- Blood tests. Blood tests can sometimes provide evidence of inflammatory or infectious conditions that may be causing your neck pain.
- Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). During a spinal tap, a needle is carefully inserted into your spine to obtain a sample of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. This test can reveal evidence of meningitis.
- Firestein GS, et al. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2009. http://www.mdconsult.com/das/book/body/208746819-6/0/1807/0.html. Accessed July 6, 2012.
- Isaac Z, et al. Evaluation of the patient with neck pain and cervical spine disorders. http://www.uptodate.com/index. Accessed July 6, 2012.
- Neurological diagnostic tests and procedures. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/misc/diagnostic_tests.htm. Accessed July 6, 2012.
- Anderson BC, et al. Treatment of neck pain. http://www.uptodate.com/index. Accessed July 6, 2012.
- Frontera WR, et al. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Musculoskeletal Disorders, Pain, and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2008. http://www.mdconsult.com/das/book/body/208746819-6/0/1678/0.html. Accessed July 6, 2012.
- Rakel D. Integrative Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.mdconsult.com/das/book/body/208746819-2/0/1494/0.html. Accessed July 6, 2012.
- What a pain in the neck! American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. http://www.aapmr.org/patients/conditions/msk/spine/Pages/Prevent-Neck-Pain.aspx. Accessed July 6, 2012.