While neck pain (in the cervical spine) is less common than lower back pain (in the lumbar spine), millions of people experience neck pain and/or related arm pain at some point in their life.
The vast majority of episodes of neck pain will get better with time and can be addressed with non-surgical treatments. However, there are a few symptoms that are possible indications of a serious medical condition and patients with these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.
- Progressive neurological deficit (weakness in the arms or loss of feeling and coordination in the arms or legs) could indicate nerve damage.
- If sustained or increasing pain is accompanied by lack of appetite, unplanned weight loss, nausea and vomiting, or fever/chills/shakes, there could be a spinal tumor or infection.
While many episodes of neck pain have no identifiable anatomical cause, certain types of neck pain and arm pain can be linked to a general cause (such as muscle strain) or a diagnosable condition (such as cervical herniated disc or cervical stenosis).
This article provides a brief introduction to the most common conditions that cause neck pain and/or arm pain, including the primary symptoms and links to more information.
Acute Neck Pain
Most episodes of acute neck pain are due to a muscle strain or other soft tissue sprain (ligaments, tendons). This type of injury can be caused by a sudden force (such as whiplash) resulting from a car accident, or from straining the neck (such as a stiff neck from sleeping in the wrong position, or a strain from carrying a heavy suitcase).
Most minor injuries to the ligaments, tendons and muscles in the neck usually heal with time (a couple of days or weeks) because these soft tissues have a good blood supply to bring the necessary nutrients and proteins for healing to take place. Nonsurgical care, such as ice and/or heat, medications, physical therapy, and/or chiropractic or osteopathic manipulations can help alleviate the painful condition while it is healing.
For patients with neck pain that lasts longer than two weeks to three months, or with predominantly arm pain, numbness or tingling, there is often a specific anatomic abnormality causing the symptoms.
For pain or numbness that radiates into the arm, see What Is Cervical Radiculopathy?