More than 1 in 10 American adults will suffer neck pain in any given year, which can be caused by spine conditions that can be treated such as bulging discs or arthritis in the spine.
The neck portion of the spine is called the cervical spine. Seven vertebrae starting at the base of the skull comprise the neck, or cervical spine. Ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones, cartilage, and nerves all bundle within its small space. This makes the cervical spine prone to pain caused by injury or wear and tear. More than 37 million American adults suffer from neck pain every year. Fortunately, most neck pain goes away on its own in a few days or weeks. A small percentage of people have spine conditions, such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, or facet degeneration. These conditions will require treatment that might include steroidal injections, physical therapy, or neck surgery.
The complexity and mobility of the cervical spine make it exceptionally prone to pain caused by injury or wear and tear. In fact, an estimated 15 percent of adults in the U.S. report neck pain in any given year. Most often, neck pain will go away within a few days or weeks. But pain that lasts for months could signal a condition that may require medical treatment. Treatment can include medications, injections, or cervical spine surgery.
FAQs About Neck Pain
Continue reading below to learn more about neck pain, or click on one of these links to go directly to the information that interests you.
What kind of cervical spine conditions cause neck pain?
A number of medical conditions can cause chronic or persistent neck pain, and several can occur simultaneously. While long-term neck pain can be caused by injury, the majority results from degenerative conditions or from ordinary wear over time. Injuries like whiplash can cause neck pain, or they can hasten or worsen natural degeneration. Pain also can result from common conditions, including:
- Displaced discs, including degenerated, herniated, slipped, ruptured, bulging, or pinched nerves, occur when stress or injury causes the spinal discs to become distorted or protrude in spots and pushes on a nerve or causes other symptoms.
- Facet degeneration occurs when the cartilage that cushions the joints between each vertebrae becomes damaged and causes pain, stiffness, and headaches.
- Spondylolisthesis happens when facet joints, which connect the vertebrae, disintegrate and slip on top of each other.
- Spinal stenosis results when the degeneration of the tissue between and around the vertebrae causes the ligaments to thicken and bone spurs to form, which narrows the spinal column and pinches nerves. This is most common after age 50.
- Bone spurs are formed when the ligaments and tendons around the bones and joints of the cervical spine are damaged or inflamed.
What are symptoms of neck pain?
Neck problems don’t always cause just neck pain. Because of nerve involvement, cervical spine conditions also can cause pain in your arms or hands, even down your back. With more serious cervical spine conditions that require medical care, these symptoms tend to be constant, disrupt activity, and can occur during the day or night. Common symptoms include:
- Stiff or sore neck
- Sharp or shooting pain in a specific area of your neck
- Tingling, numbness, or weakness in your shoulders, arms, or hands — with or without neck pain
- Radiating pain from neck to shoulder, shoulder blade, arm, or hand
What testing and diagnostic options are available for neck pain?
While some neck pain is caused by simple strains and resolves on its own, persistent or recurring neck pain can be a symptom of an underlying condition. To determine the exact origin of your pain, your physician will take your medical history and ask you about the location, frequency, and duration of your pain. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may choose from several tests, including:
- X-ray is used to identify degenerative disease, fractures, or even tumors
- CT scans produce detailed, cross-sectional images of the internal neck, which can help detect subtle changes in bones
- MRI shows both tissue and bone and is useful in diagnosing a bulging, protruding, or herniated disc, or pinching of the nerves or spinal cord
- Myelogram uses a special dye that is injected into the area around the spinal column, to allow better viewing of the spinal canal and discs, and the condition of nerves in and around the spine
- Electrodiagnostic testing studies the electrical activity of nerves in your arms and legs
- Bone scans identify abnormal activity such as inflammation
What are conservative or nonsurgical treatments for neck pain?
Neck surgery is rarely the first treatment option explored for patients with persistent neck pain. The most common first-line treatments include:
- Medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, antiseizure drugs, and opioids
- Steroid injections, which can reduce inflammation and relieve pain and pressure
- Physical therapy, which combines exercises, ice, heat, and ultrasound to reduce pain and muscle spasms
- Alternative medicine such as acupuncture, which can help alleviate pain in some patients
When is surgery recommended for neck pain?
If conservative treatments are not relieving your pain, your physician may want to discuss neck surgery. Nearly 50 percent of spine surgeries today are done on an outpatient basis, meaning you’ll be home the same day. Laser spine surgery, minimally invasive surgery, and robotic-guided surgery are all options that help improve accuracy, decrease pain, and speed recovery. The most common types of cervical surgery are: