Neck pain symptoms can vary widely. The pain may just be a mild nuisance, or it could be so excruciating that a person avoids any excessive movement.
Oftentimes neck pain is located in one spot and goes away on its own within a few days or weeks. But in some cases the pain becomes constant or radiates into other body parts, such as the shoulder and arms.
Common Neck Pain Symptoms
Common symptoms associated with neck pain usually involves one or more of the following:
- Stiff neck. Soreness and difficulty moving the neck, especially when trying to turn the head from side to side.
- Sharp pain. This symptom can be pain localized to one spot and might feel like it’s stabbing or stinging. Often, this type of pain occurs in the lower levels of the neck.
- General soreness. The pain is mostly in one spot or area on the neck, and it’s described as tender or achy, not sharp.
- Radiating pain. The pain can radiate along a nerve from the neck into the shoulders and arms. The intensity can vary and this nerve pain might feel like it’s burning or searing.
- Tingling, numbness, or weakness. These sensations can go beyond the neck and radiate into the shoulder, arm or finger. There could be a “pins-and-needles” sensation. Typically, pain that radiates down the arm is felt in only one arm, not both.
- Trouble with gripping or lifting objects. This can happen if tingling, numbness, or weakness in the fingers is present.
- Headaches. Sometimes an irritation in the neck can also affect muscles and nerves connected to the head. This could be a tension headache, such as from neck muscles tightening; or occipital neuralgia, where a pinched occipital nerve in the neck causes pain to radiate up into the head’s sides and scalp.
If neck pain symptoms progress, it can become difficult to sleep. This type of pain may also interfere with other daily activities, such as getting dressed or going to work, or any activity that involves turning the head, such as driving. Increasing neck pain with associated weakness, numbness and tingling is a concern and the physician should be contacted promptly for further evaluation.
Onset of Neck Pain Symptoms
Neck pain typically develops in one of the following ways:
- Slowly over time. Neck pain might start out as mild or only occur toward the end of a work day. But then it might recur and get worse with time.
- Immediately following an injury. For instance, neck pain could start right after a bike accident or having slept awkwardly on the neck.
- Delayed reaction after an injury. Neck sprain symptoms such as after a car accident, might begin hours or a few days after the injury occurred. Some neck injuries can get worse over time.
- Suddenly without any prior signs. Sometimes neck pain can start in the middle of a normal day for no apparent reason.
Neck pain symptoms might be constant, go away quickly, come and go regularly, or return intermittently. Certain activities or movements, such as sneezing or coughing, could make the pain worse.
Neck Pain Symptoms by Location
Symptoms associated with neck pain may vary depending on whether a nerve is being compressed, and at what level of the cervical spine that is occurring.
For example, if a disc herniation is compressing a nerve root at the cervical spine’s C5-C6 level (which would be the C6 nerve root), then the symptoms could be different from a disc herniation at another level of the cervical spine because those nerves travel to other parts of the body.
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Here are some symptoms that can occur depending on which nerve root is being compressed in the cervical spine:
- C1 and C2. These two nerve roots at the top of the cervical spine control the head. An irritation to these nerves could cause headaches.
- C3 and C4. These nerve roots help regulate the diaphragm, which is instrumental to breathing. An irritation to these nerves could harm breathing. The C4 nerve root can radiate pain to the lower neck and shoulder.
- C5. If this nerve root is impinged or irritated, shoulder pain and weakness can be experienced at the top of the upper arm.
- C6. If this nerve root is impinged or irritated, weakness can be experienced in the biceps and wrist. In addition, pain, tingling, and numbness can radiate through the arm to the thumb.
- C7. Compression of this nerve root can cause weakness in the back of the upper arm, or pain can radiate down the back of the arm and into the middle finger.
- C8. Compression of this nerve root can cause weakness with handgrip, along with numbness and tingling pain that radiates down the arm to the little finger.
When Neck Symptoms Need Immediate Medical Attention
While neck pain usually goes away on its own, sometimes a serious underlying cause is at work, such as a spinal cord injury, cancer, HIV, meningitis, or any number of infections.
People should immediately seek medical attention if they experience any of the following:
- Radiating arm or leg pain
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in arms or legs
- Problems with balance or coordination
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Unintended weight loss
- Fever or chills
When severe neck pain results from major trauma, such as a car accident or falling from a ladder, it should be treated as a medical emergency. To reduce the risk for paralysis, the patient should be immobilized by a medical professional and then transported to emergency care.
Also, seek medical care if neck pain persists or continues to interfere with daily activities.