Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Neck Pain


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jan 2020| Content last modified Jan 2020
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Neck pain is common, especially in older people. Many of the causes of low back pain can also cause neck pain. Damage to your bones, muscles, or ligaments (short, tough bands of tissue that hold your bones together at a joint) can cause neck pain. Damage to your nerves or spinal cord can also cause neck pain.

  • Most neck pain is caused by sprains and strains—this pain gets better on its own

  • If you have neck pain and have lost strength or feeling, see a doctor right away

  • You can usually ease your neck pain with medicines (such as acetaminophen) and by not doing things that stress your neck

When should I see a doctor for my neck pain?

See your doctor right away if you have neck pain and these warning signs:

  • Loss of strength in your neck, or in one or both of your arms or legs

  • Numbness in one or both of your arms or legs

  • Fever

  • Night sweats

  • Headache

  • Tiredness or confusion

  • Chest discomfort or feeling like you can't catch your breath

  • Pain that happens or gets worse when you exercise

  • Problems with swallowing

See your doctor within a day if you have severe neck pain that isn't relieved by medicines, such as acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). NSAIDs include ibuprofen and naproxen, among others.

If you have neck pain without warning signs, you can wait a few days or call your doctor to talk about how soon you should be seen.

What causes neck pain?

The most common cause of neck pain is:

  • Muscle strain or ligament sprains

Other common causes include:

  • Muscle spasms

  • Osteoarthritis (when the protective tissue at the ends of bones wears away)

  • Cervical spondylosis (wear and tear on your vertebrae and disks, which is common as you age)

  • Torn or herniated (bulging) disk in your spine (the disk presses against the nerve root and causes pain)

  • All-over body pain (such as occurs in fibromyalgia) may also affect the neck

Less common causes that are serious:

What will happen at my doctor visit?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and health history and do a physical exam.

Usually, no tests are needed. In certain cases, doctors may do:

How do doctors treat neck pain?

Doctors will:

  • Treat the cause of your neck pain

  • Suggest you take pain medicines, such as acetaminophen or an NSAID

  • Apply heat or cold to the painful area—cold is best during the first 2 days after an injury, then use heat

  • Have you avoid activities that cause your neck pain

  • Have you do physical therapy, which includes stretching and strengthening exercises

How can I prevent neck pain?

  • Exercise, including muscle-strengthening and stretching exercises

  • Keep your back straight when standing and sitting

  • Sleep on your back or side with your head supported, but not raised

  • Don't stand or sit for long periods

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