Neck pain is not typically a cause for panic, as you can treat many symptoms with simple measures such as rest, stretching, ice/heat therapy, over-the-counter medications, and ergonomics. However, there are some instances of neck pain when you should seek medical attention immediately. Here are two:
1. Stiff neck with a severe headache or fever
If your neck is stiff, and you also have a fever and/or an especially painful headache, you could have meningitis.
See When Neck Stiffness May Mean Meningitis
Meningitis, in its most dangerous form, is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. Early warning signs of meningitis may include a fever (high body temperature, chills, body aches), an intense headache, and an inability to flex the neck forward. A stiff neck doesn’t always occur when meningitis is present, so look for other possible symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to sound or light.
See How Meningitis Causes Neck Pain and Stiffness
Meningitis symptoms usually develop within a few days of exposure. Getting meningitis treated early is critical; delaying treatment poses a severe risk for hearing loss, brain damage, and even death.
Experiencing a stiff neck, fever, and bad headache all at once doesn’t always signal meningitis, but if you display these symptoms, it is recommended you visit a doctor right away.
2. Neck pain with persistent arm/hand numbness or weakness
Do you have neck pain that radiates to your shoulder, arm, or finger with a pins-and-needles, weakening, or numbing sensation? These symptoms may suggest cervical radiculopathy.
See What Is Cervical Radiculopathy?
Cervical radiculopathy means that a nerve root in your cervical spine is compressed, inflamed, or damaged. The issue most often occurs because of a nearby bone spur or herniated disc that is caused by degenerative changes in your neck. Less commonly, cervical radiculopathy indicates an infection or tumor.
See Cervical Radiculopathy Causes and Risk Factors
Cervical radiculopathy pain typically is felt in just one side of the body. The pain may also take on a burning or shock-like quality, and your grip may feel weaker. Your reflexes may also be affected.
See Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms
If you show cervical radiculopathy symptoms, see your doctor. He or she may perform a physical examination, review your medical history, and possibly conduct imaging studies or other advanced diagnostic tests.
See Diagnosing Cervical Radiculopathy
These two examples don’t form a comprehensive list, as other neck pain symptoms may require immediate medical attention. You should also seek urgent care if your neck pain is accompanied by problems with coordination or bowel/bladder control.
When in doubt, call your doctor to see if troubling signs or symptoms need to be checked. Getting an accurate diagnosis early may lead to more effective treatments and better outcomes.
How Does Severe Neck Pain Develop?