We rarely think about the neck. Why should we? There is no need for that unless it gives us some grief. It is supposed to keep our head straight and in the right position, right?
The neck is, in a way, like a connection between the head and the trunk. It is a transition point through which the brain sends important signals and communicate with the rest of the body.
We sometimes don’ t realize how important this part of our body is. But when pain occurs, we worry it may be something more serious. We wonder if we should see a doctor?
In the vast majority of cases, neck pain will not mean anything terrible. It should go away within a few days. In some cases, however, a specialist’s advice or therapy may be required.
We need to look at our bodies as a whole. It is a sum of connecting and communicating parts.No wonder then that pain in the neck may also result in aches and pains in other parts of the body. Oftentimes, patients with neck pain also have more or less severe pain radiating to the head, shoulder, upper back, or upper limb.
When you need not worry
Lots of people suffer from occasional stiffness in the neck. This most likely represents a musculoskeletal issue; several mildly irritated structures adding up to uncomfortable, reluctant movement as opposed to physically limited movement. Probably there is no reason for your concern. Unless the neck pain occurs with other symptoms such as difficulty to bend head forward and flu-like symptoms.
Very often, a sharp, burning type of pain is the result of the neck’s awkward position in the sleep. This kind of pain usually goes away without the need to see a specialist. I had many patients who experienced worsening of symptoms trying to sort the problem by having manual therapy or massage. It is best to leave it for a few days as it will subside.
Sharp, stabbing pains in the neck rarely is an indication of some serious illness. As Paul Ingraham from Pain Science writes:
In isolation — with no other obvious problem — they usually indicate that you just have a temporary, minor source of irritation in the cervical spine. Serious causes of neck pain like infections, tumors, and spinal cord problems tend to grind you down with throbbing pains, not “stab” you.
Another reason behind a neck pain may be work – or activity – related. If we keep the neck in one position for prolonged periods, muscles can’t relax, and get overworked. This also may lead to a subsequent, painful episode.
Facet joints injury
Facet Joints are small joints found on the back of your spine (one on each side). We need them to move our neck and head freely. They support the weight and control the movement between the individual vertebrae of the spine. They work in tandem with intervertebral discs. Like with any joint in the body, these small joints can get inflamed and their movement restricted.
We notice straight away something is wrong as other surrounding tissues stop functioning properly too. Painful muscles, pain on head movement, soreness, pain radiating to the shoulder, and arm are all possible symptoms of facet joint issue. Symptoms are similar to those associated with disc problems or spinal cord injury.
Neck pain – what could it mean?
Neck pain can mean more serious problems such as:
When to see a doctor?
Definitely after an accident. Especially at a higher speed, where there is a greater risk of fracture or nerve damage. You should see a doctor as soon as possible and have a proper medical examination. This will help rule out anything serious. It is likely your doctor decides you have to have an x-ray or even MRI, but that depends on how serious the accident was.
You should also consult your doctor:
- When the pain lasts 6 weeks or more
- The pain is sharp, it does not decrease, but on the contrary, it becomes more troublesome
- There is at least one of the following disturbing symptoms (red flags)
Red flags – what to look for?
- Light tapping on or touching the spine is painful.
- Unintentional weight loss is a potential sign of cancer.
- Fevers and/or chills (especially in diabetic patients).
- Symptoms of meningitis – a fierce headache and/or an inability to bend the head forward, and/or fever, and/or altered mental state.
- A severe headache that comes on suddenly [sometimes called a “thunderclap headache”] This type of pain should always be investigated.
- Severe, new pain (throbbing or constrictive) on the side of the neck – a sign of an artery tear which can lead to stroke. Pain is the only symptom of some tears. Most but not all cases are sudden, and cause both neck and head pain (in the temple or back the skull). The pain is usually strange.
- Possible signs of spinal cord trouble in the neck-these may occur with or without neck pain, mostly affecting the limbs in surprisingly vague ways that can have other causes: poor hand coordination; weakness of upper limbs, “heavy” feelings, atrophy (muscle wasting); diffuse numbness; shooting pains in the limbs (especially when bending the head forward); an awkward gait. Sometimes people have both neck pain and more remote symptoms without realizing they are related.
- Lack of stability of the upper cervical spine – unexplained episodes of dizziness and/or nausea and vomiting
- Steroid use, other drug abuse, and HIV are all risk factors for a serious cause of neck pain.
- Apart from having neck pain, you are also feeling quite unwell in any other way
- The main signs that neck pain might be caused by autoimmune disease specifically include a family history of autoimmune disease, gradual but progressive increase in symptoms before the age of 40, marked morning stiffness, pain in other joints as well as the low back, rashes, difficult digestion, irritated eyes, and discharge from the urethra.
Other causes of neck pain
- Skin problems – herpes zoster (shingles), cellulitis, carbuncle
- Bornholm disease
- Temporal arteritis
- Personage – Turner Syndrome
- Eagle’s Syndrome
I am a Chartered Physiotherapist and Master Myofascial Therapist practicing in Southampton, Hampshire. I was working in the NHS between 2008 and 2021. My speciality lies in treating musculoskeletal conditions and providing community rehabilitation.