The neck—or cervical spine—is a coordinated network of nerves, bones, joints, and muscles directed by the brain and the spinal cord. It is designed for strength, stability, and nerve communication.
Commonly, there are a number of problems that cause pain in the neck. Additionally, irritation along the nerve pathways can cause pain into the shoulder, head, arm, and hand. Irritation of the spinal cord can cause pain into the legs and other areas below the neck.
Most instances of neck pain will go away within a few days or weeks, but pain that persists for months could signal an underlying medical cause that needs to be addressed—in some instances early intervention may be necessary for the best results.
Neck Pain Range of Symptoms
Neck pain can feel like any of the following:
- Stiff neck that makes turning the head difficult
- Sharp or stabbing pain in one spot
- Soreness or tenderness in a general area
- Pain that radiates down into the shoulders, arms, or fingers; or radiates up into the head
In some cases, other symptoms associated with the neck pain are even more problematic, such as:
- Tingling, numbness, or weakness that radiates into the shoulder, arms, or fingers
- Trouble with gripping or lifting objects
- Problems with walking, balance, or coordination
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Neck pain might be minor and easily ignored, or it can be excruciating to the point where it interferes with important daily activities, such as sleep. The pain might be short-lived, come and go, or become constant. While not common, neck pain can also be a signal of a serious underlying medical issue, such as meningitis, or cancer.
The Cervical Spine and What Can Go Wrong
The neck, or cervical spine, has the important job of providing support and mobility for the head, which can weigh about 11 pounds—the approximate weight of a medium bowling ball.
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The cervical spine begins at the base of the skull and through a series of seven vertebral segments, named C1 though C7, connects to the thoracic, or chest, region of the spine, at the C7-T1 level.
With the exception of the top level of the cervical spine, which primarily provides rotation for the skull, most levels of the cervical spine can be described as follows:
- A pair of facet joints connect two vertebrae, enabling forward, backward, and twisting motions
- In between the vertebrae is a disc, which provides cushioning, spacing, and coordination
- Nerve roots extend from the spinal cord and exit through the neural foramina (holes in the bones) located on the left and right sides of the spine
Most problems with the cervical spine develop over time, but they can also be caused or accelerated by an injury.
Various problems in the cervical spine can compress a nerve root or the spinal cord and cause neck pain and/or neurological (pinched nerve) symptoms. A few examples would be if a disc degenerated and pushed into a nerve, or similarly if bone spurs grew on facet joints to the point that they encroached on a nerve.
The Course of Neck Pain
Neck pain is common among adults, but it can occur at any age. In the course of a year, about 15% of US adults have neck pain that lasts at least one full day.1
Neck pain can develop suddenly, such as from an injury, or it may develop slowly over time, such as from years of poor posture or wear and tear.
The pain can usually be alleviated with self-care, such as rest, icing the area, or improving posture. But sometimes nonsurgical medical treatments are needed, such as medication or physical therapy. If nonsurgical treatments are not helping, surgical options may be considered.
A doctor should be consulted if pain persists or continues to interfere with routine activities, such as sleeping through the night.
When Neck Pain Is Serious
Some symptoms associated with neck pain could indicate the health of a nerve root or the spinal cord is at risk, or perhaps there is an underlying disease or infection. These symptoms can include radiating pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness into the shoulders, arm, or hands; neurological problems with balance, walking, coordination, or bladder and bowel control; fever or chills; and other troublesome symptoms.
In addition, severe neck pain from a trauma, such as a car crash or falling down steps, needs emergency care. Before transporting a person in that situation, the neck should be immobilized by a trained professional to reduce the risk for paralysis and other complications.