Neck pain is a common problem and often not serious. It is closely linked to posture and is more frequently seen these days with stooping over mobile devices for long hours. However, it can hamper daily activities and even contribute to headaches which are often intolerable. When accompanied by other symptoms like neck stiffness, light sensitivity and fever then serious conditions like meningitis need to be considered as a possible cause.
Other Symptoms with Neck Pain
Neck pain is a symptom and may be accompanied by several other signs and symptoms. This includes:
- Neck stiffness
- Muscle spasm (neck muscles)
All of these symptoms are usually associated with the same causes of neck pain or may be caused by neck pain. Other signs and symptoms that may also be present includes:
- Clicking (cracking) neck sound
- Upper back and/or shoulder pain
- Numbness, tingling and/or pain down the arms
- Redness of the skin or contusions
- Intolerance to light
- Loss of consciousness
Read more on how to ease a stiff neck.
Causes of Neck Pain
There are a number of different causes of neck pain. The most common causes are due to musculoskeletal strain and injury that may occur during the course of daily life. Although these conditions are usually not serious, it must be investigated. Less commonly, neck pain may be a sign of an infection or even cancer.
Muscle strain is one of the most common causes of neck pain. There are several large and small muscles that stabilize and move the head and neck. These muscles become strained with prolonged hours of contraction which has become a common occurrence in modern life. Stooping over a desk or device for long periods, sleeping in an awkward position and a generally poor posture will all lead to muscle strain.
Wear and Tear
Wear and tear of the bones, cartilage and ligaments of the neck is also a common occurrence particularly in older people. The discs between the vertebrae are one of the commonly affected sites with wear and tear. Eventually the discs shrink. It causes a condition known as cervical spondylosis. As a result the surrounding structures like the joints have to bear greater force without the sponginess of the disc. This further contributes to neck pain.
Injury to the neck is mainly seen with motor vehicle accidents and contact sports. A sudden “whipping” of the head back and forth leads to a condition known as whiplash. There is strain and inflammation of the soft tissue, such as the ligaments, muscles and tendons as well as joint lining. A blow to the neck as well as neck surgery may be other forms of trauma that can result in neck pain.
The intervertebral (IV) disc has an soft inner part (nucleus) surrounded by a firmer outer part (annulus). Depending on the strain and injury to the neck, the nucleus can push against the annulus thereby causing the disc to protrude. This protrusion may then press against a spinal nerve (pinched nerve) and cause pain. In severe cases the herniation may even lead to a rupture of the intervertebral disc.
The spinal cord runs within a hollow in the spine which is known as the spinal canal. If there is any protrusion into this canal then it may press on the cord or nerves that emanate from it. This narrowing is known as spinal steosis and it may lead to pain. The neck is one of the commonly affected sites. Apart from a bulging disc mentioned above, bony outgrowths, abnormally thick ligaments and tumors can also occur.
The two common types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, can affect the bone joints and lead to neck pain. Osteorthritis (OA) is a degenerative condition where the joints and even the bones may become worn out over time. The discs may also be affected (degenerative disc disease) and may lead to cervical spondylosis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune joint inflammation that may affect the small joints between vertebrae.
The bones of the spine (vertebrae) can become weak and brittle like bones elsewhere in the body. This condition is known as osteoporosis. Tiny fractures may occur even with minimal force on the spine and this can then lead to pain. Osteoporosis is more common among women. It may be associated with hormone levels and age-related changes in bone cell activity. Physical activity, low calcium intake and low vitamin D levels are other contributing factors.
Meningitis is a less common but very serious cause of neck pain. It is the inflammation of the linings around the brain and spinal cord. Most of the time it is due to an infection, which is often viral but may also be due to other infectious agents. If left untreated, meningitis can progress to life-threatening complications. Fever, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light and headaches are some of the other symptoms that may occur with neck pain.
A host of other causes may also be responsible for neck pain. This includes:
- Birth defects (congenital) of the spinal canal
- Cancer of the spine
- Tumors (benign)
What to do for Neck Pain?
Neck pain needs to be treated with medication, surgery and even physical therapy depending on the underlying cause. It is therefore important that a medical professional is consulted about the neck pain. However, there are a few simple measures that should be considered until medical attention can be sought.
- Immobilize the neck with a soft neck collar or a large soft towel that is rolled up.
- Do not sleep on too many pillows and ensure that the remaining pillows can maintain proper neck support.
- Apply cold packs on the neck immediately after an injury (as long as there is no open wound).
- Use heat (hot water bottles or heat pads) for persistent and long term neck pain.
- Do neck exercises 2 to 3 times a day to stretch the muscles and limit muscle strain.
- Gently massage the neck but do not attempt to manipulate or adjust the neck on your own.
Read more on how to remedy neck pain.
If there are symptoms of meningitis present then immediate medical attention is necessary. The measures discussed above should not be attempted in order to delay seeing a health care professional.