Neck pain or stiffness is a common complaint–and while most episodes of neck pain will get better with time, there are some cases that need medical attention immediately. Understanding the root causes of neck pain can help you determine which category you fall into.
Neck pain or stiffness can happen for a variety of reasons including:
Neck pain typically falls into two main categories: acute or chronic.
Acute neck pain occurs suddenly and heals within several days to weeks. This is because the blood supply in the soft tissues is still good enough to deliver the nutrients and proteins that are essential for the healing process to occur. The source of pain is usually in the muscles and ligaments, joints, or discs.
Chronic neck pain lasts longer than 3 months. Pain is continuous and may even worsen with certain activities. The source of pain is sometimes harder to determine but is often linked to nerve damage, arthritis, tissue scarring, or emotional effects of pain. Patients that suffer from chronic symptoms may be referred to a pain specialist.
Most neck pain improves gradually with home treatment–but if it doesn’t, you should consult with your doctor. You should also see your doctor if pain spreads down your arms or leg, is accompanied by headache, numbness, weakness, or tingling, or if you have recently suffered an injury, such as a motor vehicle accident or fall.
Treatment for neck pain will depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor will look over your medical history and perform a physical exam. You may also need to undergo additional imaging studies and tests to help determine the cause of your neck pain.
Healing begins with self-care and nonsurgical strategies, such as ice, exercise, medicine, massage, chiropractic care, and injections. Surgery is rarely needed, but may be the only option if the patient has conditions such as muscle weakness, cervical cord compression, disc herniation, balance and coordination issues, or severe pain that does not respond to nonsurgical treatments.
In most cases, people with acute neck pain respond quickly to treatment and will find relief. Prevention is key, however, to avoiding a recurrence of pain.