Most cases of neck pain last between 2 and 6 weeks (acute pain), and in many cases neck pain alleviates on its own with little or no treatment.
The most common cause of neck pain is a muscle strain, in which a muscle is stretched too far and tears. Neck muscle strain is typically caused by poor posture or support, such as sleeping with the neck in awkward positions.
Most neck muscle injuries will feel better within a few days or weeks. Most neck muscle strains are alleviated using heat or ice, over-the-counter pain medications, and stretching.
Common Causes of Chronic Neck Pain
Chronic neck pain is usually caused by a mechanical issue with the facet joints or discs, which typically stems from painful wear-and-tear associated with age.
Cervical spine conditions tend to affect not only the neck but also the head, shoulders, or arms. Such conditions include:
- Cervical osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis in the cervical spine causes excessive friction in the neck’s facet joints, leading to neck pain and stiffness. Additionally, cervical osteoarthritis can cause bone spurs to develop, which may cause headaches at the base of the skull and nerve root pain in the shoulders, arms, or hands.
- Cervical degenerative disc disease. A common cause of chronic neck pain is the degeneration, or wear-and-tear, on a cervical spinal disc. Cervical disc degeneration typically causes a low-level chronic neck pain and intermittent episodes of more severe pain and instability.
- Cervical herniated disc. If a disc in the cervical spine bulges or leaks from the disc space, it can cause inflammation and irritation of the surrounding joints, muscles, or nerve roots. Cervical disc herniation typically causes neurological pain in the shoulders and arms, as well as mild to moderate pain and stiffness in the neck.
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- Cervical foraminal stenosis. Cervical foraminal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the space where nerve roots exit the vertebrae, and may be caused by osteoarthritic bone spurs or a herniated disc. This condition typically causes pain, weakness, and numbness in the shoulder or arm, as well as possible neck pain.
- Cervical stenosis with myelopathy. Narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck, or cervical stenosis, may lead to full-body neurological symptoms called myelopathy. Symptoms of myelopathy typically include reduced fine motor skills, difficulty walking without support (such as from a cane or walker), and numbness, weakness, and sharp pain in the shoulders, arms, and/or hands.
A primary risk factor for neck pain includes poor posture, such as slouching or looking down at a phone screen for long periods of time. Additionally, neck pain and stiffness may result from poor support for the neck during sleep, lifting overhead in labor-intensive work, and motions that put repetitive stress on the neck muscles and joints.
Smoking and nicotine intake is also a common risk factor for neck pain.