Skip to Main Content
A senior man and his grandchild finish playing basketball at the playground.

Neck pain: symptoms, cases, and treatment

Neck pain is a common discomfort that can range from mild to severe, affecting the muscles, ligaments, nerves, bones, or joints in the neck area. Individuals experiencing neck pain may describe it as a dull ache, sharp stabbing pain, stiffness, or soreness in the neck region. It can also radiate to the shoulders, upper back, or arms, causing additional discomfort and limited mobility.

People often report feeling tension or tightness in the neck muscles, making it difficult to move their head comfortably. Some may experience headaches or numbness and tingling sensations in the arms or hands associated with neck pain.

What are the symptoms of neck pain?

Symptoms associated with neck pain can vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain and stiffness

  • Radiating pain

  • Muscle spasms

  • Headaches

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Decreased range of motion

  • Pain worsened by certain activities

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Fatigue and irritability

  • Swelling or inflammation

 

Neck pain causes

  • Muscle strain: Overuse, poor posture, or sudden movements can strain the muscles in the neck, leading to discomfort and stiffness.

  • Poor ergonomics: Prolonged sitting at a desk with improper posture, using electronic devices with the neck bent forward, or sleeping in an awkward position can contribute to neck pain.

  • Degenerative conditions: Conditions like osteoarthritis, cervical spondylosis, or degenerative disc disease can cause wear and tear of the cervical spine, leading to pain and stiffness.

  • Injuries: Traumatic events such as whiplash from car accidents, falls, or sports injuries can damage the soft tissues, muscles, ligaments, or discs in the neck, resulting in pain and restricted movement.

  • Herniated discs: Discs between the vertebrae may bulge or rupture, putting pressure on nearby nerves and causing neck pain, along with radiating symptoms into the arms or hands.

  • Pinched nerves: Compression of nerves in the cervical spine, often due to herniated discs, bone spurs, or spinal stenosis, can lead to neck pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms or hands.

  • Poor posture habits: Habitual behaviors like slouching, cradling the phone between the ear and shoulder, or carrying heavy bags on one side can strain the neck muscles and contribute to pain over time.

  • Stress and tension: Emotional stress or anxiety can cause muscle tension and stiffness in the neck and shoulders, leading to discomfort and pain.

  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis, or tumors in the cervical spine can also cause neck pain as a symptom.

 

Neck pain treatment options

Treatment options for neck pain may vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Here are some common approaches:

  • Self-care measures:

    • Rest: Taking short breaks from activities that aggravate neck pain can help reduce strain on the muscles and promote healing.

    • Ice or heat therapy: Applying ice packs or heating pads to the affected area can alleviate pain and inflammation. Ice is typically used for acute injuries, while heat may be more beneficial for chronic conditions.

    • Neck exercises: Gentle stretching and strengthening exercises prescribed by a healthcare professional can improve flexibility, reduce stiffness, and enhance neck muscle strength.

  • Medications:

    • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

    • Muscle relaxants: Prescription muscle relaxants may be recommended to relieve muscle spasms and promote relaxation in cases of severe neck pain.

    • Topical analgesics: Creams, gels, or patches containing lidocaine or capsaicin can provide localized pain relief when applied to the neck area.

  • Physical therapy:

    • A physical therapist can design a customized exercise program to improve posture, strengthen neck muscles, and enhance range of motion.

    • Manual therapy techniques such as massage, joint mobilization, or traction may be used to alleviate pain and improve neck function.

  • Modalities:

    • Electrical stimulation: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or ultrasound therapy may be used to reduce pain and promote healing in the neck area.

    • Cold laser therapy: Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) can stimulate tissue repair and reduce inflammation, offering pain relief for some individuals with neck pain.

  • Surgery:

    • Surgery may be considered as a last resort for individuals with severe or persistent neck pain that does not respond to conservative treatments.

    • Surgical options may include discectomy, fusion, or decompression procedures, depending on the underlying cause of neck pain.

 

It's important to consult with a St. Joseph Health orthopedic specialist to determine the most appropriate treatment approach based on individual needs, preferences, and the underlying cause of neck pain.

Try these exercises to relieve neck pain

  • Neck stretches:

    • Neck tilt: 

      • Slowly tilt your head to one side, bringing your ear towards your shoulder. 

      • Hold for 15-30 seconds, then switch sides.

    • Neck rotation: 

      • Gently turn your head to one side, looking over your shoulder. 

      • Hold for 15-30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

    • Neck flexion-extension: 

      • Lower your chin towards your chest, feeling a stretch in the back of your neck. 

      • Hold for 15-30 seconds, then slowly tilt your head back, looking upwards. Hold for another 15-30 seconds.

  • Neck strengthening exercises:

    • Isometric neck exercises: 

      • Place your hand against your forehead and push your head forward while simultaneously resisting with your neck muscles. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then relax. 

      • Repeat with your hand against the back of your head, pushing backward.

    • Neck resistance exercises: 

      • Use your hand to apply gentle resistance while performing movements such as nodding your head forward, backward, and to the sides. 

      • Hold each position against resistance for 5-10 seconds, then relax.

  • Shoulder and upper back exercises:

    • Shoulder rolls: 

      • Roll your shoulders backward in a circular motion, then forward. 

      • Repeat 10-15 times in each direction to release tension in the neck and upper back.

    • Shoulder blade squeezes: 

      • Sit or stand with your arms at your sides. 

      • Squeeze your shoulder blades together, holding for 5-10 seconds, then release. 

      • Repeat 10-15 times to strengthen the upper back muscles.

  • Posture exercises:

    • Chin tucks: 

      • Sit or stand with your shoulders relaxed. 

      • Gently tuck your chin towards your chest, lengthening the back of your neck. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then relax. 

      • Repeat 10-15 times to improve posture and reduce strain on the neck muscles.

    • Wall angels:

      • Stand with your back against a wall, feet hip-width apart. 

      • Slowly raise your arms overhead, keeping your elbows and wrists in contact with the wall. 

      • Slide your arms down the wall into a "W" shape, then return to the starting position. 

      • Repeat 10-15 times to strengthen the muscles that support good posture.

  • Breathing exercises:

    • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. 

    • Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your abdomen and filling your lungs with air. Exhale slowly through your mouth, emptying your lungs completely. 

    • Repeat for several breaths to promote relaxation and reduce tension in the neck and shoulders.


Perform these exercises gently and slowly, avoiding any movements that cause pain or discomfort. If you experience severe or persistent neck pain, consult with a St. Joseph Health orthopedic physician before starting any new exercise program.

Find a Doctor


Looking for a doctor? Perform a quick search by name or browse by specialty.

Learn the Stroke Facts