Neck Injuries and Disorders

Any part of your neck - muscles, bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, or nerves - can cause neck problems.

Any part of your neck - muscles, bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, or nerves - can cause neck problems. Neck pain is very common. Pain may also come from your shoulder, jaw, head, or upper arms.

Muscle strain or tension often causes neck pain. The problem is usually overuse, such as from sitting at a computer for too long. Sometimes you can strain your neck muscles from sleeping in an awkward position or overdoing it during exercise. Falls or accidents, including car accidents, are another common cause of neck pain. Whiplash, a soft tissue injury to the neck, is also called neck sprain or strain.

Treatment depends on the cause, but may include applying ice, taking pain relievers, getting physical therapy or wearing a cervical collar. You rarely need surgery.

When your neck is sore, you may have difficulty moving it, especially turning to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck.

If neck pain involves compression of your nerves, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand.

A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Most often, everyday activities are to blame. Such activities include:

  • Bending over a desk for hours
  • Having poor posture while watching TV or reading
  • Having your computer monitor positioned too high or too low
  • Sleeping in an uncomfortable position
  • Twisting and turning your neck in a jarring manner while exercising
  • Lifting things too quickly or with poor posture

Accidents or falls can cause severe neck injuries, such as vertebral fractures, whiplash, blood vessel injury, and even paralysis.

Other causes include:

  • Medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia
  • Cervical arthritis or spondylosis
  • Ruptured disk
  • Small fractures to the spine from osteoporosis
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  • Sprains
  • Infection of the spine (osteomyelitis, discitis, abscess)
  • Torticollis
  • Cancer that involves the spine

Treatment and self-care for your neck pain depend on the cause of the pain. You will need to learn:

  • How to relieve the pain
  • What your activity level should be
  • What medicines you can take

For minor, common causes of neck pain:

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Apply heat or ice to the painful area. Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, and then use heat after that.
  • Apply heat with warm showers, hot compresses, or a heating pad. To prevent injury to your skin, DO NOT fall asleep with a heating pad or ice bag in place.
  • Stop normal physical activity for the first few days. This helps calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
  • Do slow range-of-motion exercises, up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear. This helps gently stretch the neck muscles.
  • Have a partner gently massage the sore or painful areas.
  • Try sleeping on a firm mattress with a pillow that supports your neck. You may want to get a special neck pillow.
  • Ask your health care provider about using a soft neck collar to relieve discomfort. However, using collar for a long time can weaken neck muscles. Take it off from time to time to allow the muscles to get stronger.