Overview

Neck pain is common. Poor posture — whether from leaning over a computer or hunching over a workbench — strains neck muscles. Osteoarthritis also is a common cause of neck pain.

Rarely, neck pain can be a symptom of a more serious problem. Seek medical care for neck pain with numbness or loss of strength in the arms or hands or for pain that shoots into a shoulder or down an arm.

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Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Pain that's often worsened by holding the head in one place for long periods, such as when driving or working at a computer
  • Muscle tightness and spasms
  • Decreased ability to move the head
  • Headache

When to see a doctor

Seek immediate care if severe neck pain results from an injury, such as a motor vehicle accident, diving accident or fall.

Contact a health care provider if neck pain:

  • Is severe
  • Persists for several days without relief
  • Spreads down arms or legs
  • Comes with headache, numbness, weakness or tingling

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Causes

Because the neck supports the weight of the head, it can be at risk of injuries and conditions that cause pain and restrict motion. Neck pain causes include:

  • Muscle strains. Overuse, such as too many hours hunched over a computer or a smartphone, often triggers muscle strains. Even minor things, such as reading in bed, can strain neck muscles.
  • Worn joints. As with other joints in the body, neck joints tend to wear with age. In response to this wear and tear, the body often forms bone spurs that can affect joint motion and cause pain.
  • Nerve compression. Herniated disks or bone spurs in the vertebrae of the neck can press on the nerves branching out from the spinal cord.
  • Injuries. Rear-end auto collisions often result in whiplash injury. This occurs when the head jerks backward and then forward, straining the soft tissues of the neck.
  • Diseases. Certain diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer, can cause neck pain.

Prevention

Most neck pain is associated with poor posture combined with age-related wear and tear. To help prevent neck pain, keep your head centered over your spine. Some simple changes in your daily routine may help. Consider trying to:

  • Use good posture. When standing and sitting, be sure your shoulders are in a straight line over your hips and your ears are directly over your shoulders. When using cell phones, tablets and other small screens, keep your head up and hold the device straight out rather than bending your neck to look down at the device.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you travel long distances or work long hours at your computer, get up, move around, and stretch your neck and shoulders.
  • Adjust your desk, chair and computer so that the monitor is at eye level. Knees should be slightly lower than hips. Use your chair's armrests.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking can increase the risk of developing neck pain.
  • Avoid carrying heavy bags with straps over your shoulder. The weight can strain your neck.
  • Sleep in a healthy position. Your head and neck should be aligned with your body. Use a small pillow under your neck. Try sleeping on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows, which will flatten your spinal muscles.
  • Stay active. If you don't move much, increase your activity level.

Aug. 25, 2022
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