Neck pain is most commonly caused by mechanical stress to the neck, such as strains or sprains to the muscles and ligaments in the neck.
There are also other possible causes, such as degeneration of the spine as part of the aging process, and pinching of the nerves in the neck. The causes of neck pain are discussed in more detail below.
Posture is an important factor for spinal health and preventing spine-related pain. Neck pain is more likely to affect people who spend a great proportion of their day in a bent-forward posture, such as those who work seated at a desk. This suggests that continuous strain on the connective tissues that support the neck may cause them to weaken, and increase susceptibility to neck pain.
Trauma or injury
A “whiplash” injury is a sudden significant jolt to the neck, such as during a car accident or other similar trauma. It has the potential to cause neck pain. In such situations, the sudden and vigorous movement of the head overstretches the tendons and ligaments, and may cause tears or other damage. Whiplash injuries can also often cause headaches.
Also known as wryneck, acute torticollis is a condition that involves the twisting of the head to one side. Affected individuals find it very painful to move the head back into a normal straight position, and the attempt results in neck pain. The exact cause of torticollis is often not identifiable. In some cases, it may be linked to a minor sprain or strain in the neck, or exposure to extremely cold temperatures.
In many cases, people wake up in the morning with their head twisted and experience pain when they try to return it to normal position. This type of wry neck tends to improve within several days without the need for any treatment.
Some degeneration of the vertebrae and spinal discs may occur as part of the normal aging process. It is for this reason that recurring or persistent neck pain is more common among elderly individuals. However, while most elderly adults have some degree of degeneration, not all experience neck pain, suggesting that there are also other factors in play which cause the pain. Cervical spondylosis is the medical term to describe this degeneration of the vertebrae and discs.
Radiculopathy is a condition that involves compression of or damage to the root of a nerve. It is also sometimes referred to as a “pinched nerve.” Cervical radiculopathy involves the nerves in the neck region, which may lead to neck pain. Other symptoms may also be observed, such as numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation in the neck. These sensations may also affect an arm if a nerve that serves this area is affected. Radiculopathy usually results from spondylosis or a prolapsed disc.
Serious causes of neck pain
Some potential causes of neck pain are more serious and require specialized treatment to prevent further damage and worsening of pain. Some bone disorders, infections such as meningitis, and cancers, may have neck pain as the presenting symptom.
There are several indicators that could point to a more serious cause of neck pain. These include:
- Concurrent conditions at the time of development of pain, such as AIDS, or cancer
- Progressive worsening of pain
- Numbness or weakness of a hand or arm
- Fever or unexplained weight loss
- Tenderness of the neck bones
- Difficulty passing urine or incontinence
If any of these indicators are reported with neck pain, it is recommended to conduct further investigations as to the cause of the condition.
Reviewed by Liji Thomas, MD