Neck Pain Symptoms and Causes

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The neck is a pretty amazing part of your body, but it has a tough job. It holds up the weight of a bowling ball all day long. Your neck is made up of vertebrae that extend from the skull to the upper torso. Cervical discs absorb shock between the bones. The bones, ligaments, and muscles of your neck support your head and allow for motion. The spinal column supports your head and protects the spinal cord. This is the main structure which links the network of nerves throughout your body. Messages travel along this network sending sensations, such as pain, to your brain. Any abnormalities, inflammation, or injury can cause neck pain or stiffness. Neck pain is a common complaint. Neck muscles can be strained from poor posture and lifestyle habits — from leaning over your computer, looking down at your phone or hunching over your workbench.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Pain that’s often worsened by holding your head in one place for long periods, such as when driving or working at a computer
  • Muscle tightness and spasms
  • Decreased ability to move your head
  • Headache
  • Numbness

Causes

Your neck is flexible and supports the weight of your head, so it can be vulnerable to injuries and conditions that cause pain and restrict motion. Neck pain causes include:

  • Injuries. Contact Sports/Rear-end auto collisions often result in whiplash injury, which occurs when the head is jerked backward and then forward, straining the soft tissues of the neck.
  • Nerve compression. Herniated disks or bone spurs in the vertebrae of your neck can press on the nerves branching out from the spinal cord.
  • Muscle strains. Overuse, such as too many hours hunched over your computer or smartphone, often triggers muscle strains. Even minor things, such as reading in bed or gritting your teeth due to anxiety and stress, can strain neck muscles.
  • Worn joints. Just like the other joints in your body, your neck joints tend to wear down with age. Osteoarthritis causes the cushions (cartilage) between your bones (vertebrae) to deteriorate. Your body then forms bone spurs that affect joint motion and cause pain.
  • Diseases. Certain diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer, can cause neck pain.

Pain and stiffness

  • You may feel pain in the middle or on either side of your neck, but it may also extend to the shoulder or to the upper chest.
  • You may have pain or weakness in your arms.
  • You may have tension headaches, where the pain can travel to the back of your head and sometimes into your ear or behind your eye.
  • It may be painful to move your neck and your muscles may feel tight, especially if you’ve been sitting or sleeping in one position for a long time.
  • You may notice that your neck won’t turn as far as it normally does, for example when you try to look over your shoulder while reversing the car.

Numbness or tingling

A nerve can become pinched when the muscles, bones or tissues surrounding it apply too much pressure. As a result, you may feel numbness, pins and needles or a tingling sensation that can be felt down your arm, sometimes right down to your fingers.

Clicking and grating noises

You may hear or feel clicking or grating as you move your head. This is called crepitus, and it can be caused by air bubbles popping, or tissues and bones moving over each other, in the joint. Other joints often do this too, but noises from your neck usually seem louder because they’re happening closer to your ears. You may also find they’re more noticeable at night.

Muscle spasms

Muscle spasms are the sudden stiffening of a muscle or groups of muscles in your body. Often there is no known cause and they can be very unpleasant. When it occurs in the neck it usually causes pain and stiffness down one side, which can make it difficult to turn your head.

Other symptoms

If you have long-lasting neck pain and stiffness, particularly if your sleep is disturbed, then you may feel very tired and, not surprisingly, you may start to feel rather down or low in mood.

Prevention

Most neck pain is associated with poor posture combined with age-related wear and tear. To help prevent neck pain, keep your head centered over your spine. Some simple changes in your daily routine may help. Consider trying to:

  • Use good posture. When standing and sitting, be sure your shoulders are in a straight line over your hips and your ears are directly over your shoulders.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you travel long distances or work long hours at your computer, get up, move around and stretch your neck and shoulders. Be mindful and aware of your lifestyle and habits that create repetitive motion.
  • Adjust your desk, chair and computer so that the monitor is at eye level. Knees should be slightly lower than hips. Use your chair’s armrests.
  • Avoid tucking the neck out during exercises such as crunches and pull ups.
  • Avoid tucking the phone between your ear and shoulder when you talk. Use a headset or speakerphone instead.
  • Avoid carrying heavy bags with straps over your shoulder. The weight can strain your neck.
  • Sleep in a good position. Your head and neck should be aligned with your body. Use a small pillow under your neck. Try sleeping on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows, which will flatten your spinal muscles.