Feeling dizzy or unsteady is an uncomfortable feeling most people have experienced. In cases where dizziness is accompanied by neck pain, it can be especially problematic, with the potential to cause problems with balance, concentration, and head movements.
What Does Neck Pain with Dizziness Feel Like?
While dizziness typically has a rapid onset, neck pain may develop either gradually or quickly. Many people with neck pain accompanied by dizziness experience one or more of the following:
- Dull ache or general soreness in the neck, which may also go into the shoulder(s) or up into the head
- Sharp or electric-like pain or tingling that may come and go, possibly radiating down into the arm and/or hand
- Unsteadiness or imbalance when trying to walk, stand, and/or go up or down steps
- Light-headedness or a feeling of the head floating or disconnected from the body
- Feeling faint or suddenly sleepy, such as about to lose consciousness
- Visual disturbances or blurry vision in one or both eyes
- Pressure or fullness felt in one or both ears
- Tenderness in the neck, shoulders, and/or head, which may worsen when pressed
- Decreased range of motion in the neck, such as from a sore or stiff neck
Some cases of neck pain and dizziness may be made worse during certain movements, such as:
- Rotating the head to the side
- Standing up, especially quickly
- Performing a vigorous activity, such as lifting weights
- Running or any activity that involves sudden movements
Some people with severe or recurring dizziness may not even notice the associated neck pain unless asked about it. Other people may be more bothered by the neck pain—which could be sharp and/or include electric-like pain radiating down into the arm—and only occasionally experience dizziness.
Head and Neck Anatomy for Balance
For the body to maintain balance, it relies on 3 sensory subsystems:
- The vestibular system, located primarily within the inner ear, detects motion and acceleration. It also constantly interacts with the brain and spinal cord to adjust the body accordingly to maintain balance and posture.
- The visual system gathers information from the eyes regarding the body’s relation to its surroundings.
- The proprioceptive system is comprised of proprioceptors (tiny sensory receptors) in the muscles and joints throughout the body, which send information to the brain via the spinal cord about their relative positioning. The cervical spine is densely populated with proprioceptors. In particular, the upper cervical spine’s proprioceptors are thought to play a key role in helping the head and eyes stay balanced.1,2
The brain is constantly comparing information from all three of these subsystems to maintain balance. In theory, if any of these subsystems sense a problem or relays faulty information, it could lead to dizziness.1,2
In addition to the spinal cord, many critical nerves and blood vessels travel through the neck—connecting the head with the rest of the body and playing an important role in balance.
Development of Neck Pain and Dizziness
While neck pain or a problem within the neck has not been scientifically verified as a cause of dizziness, it is commonly reported by patients and clinicians.3 Some potential ways that dizziness may occur as a result of a painful problem in the neck include:
- Neural problem, such as damage to a proprioceptor in the neck
- Vascular compression or narrowing, such as to the vertebral artery that supplies blood to the brain
Other causes of neck pain and dizziness occurring together are also possible, but more research and/or better diagnostic tests are needed to determine if dizziness can truly stem from an issue in the neck.1-3
When to See the Doctor for Neck Pain and Dizziness
While most cases of dizziness are mild and quickly go away on their own, sometimes the problem requires medical attention. If dizziness persists and interferes with routine activities or quality of life, it should be examined by a doctor.
In addition, any type of pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness that radiates down into the arm or hand should be evaluated by a doctor. If neck pain and/or dizziness are accompanied by severe headache, nausea, feeling faint, bowel/bladder dysfunction, and/or trouble with coordination or walking, medical attention is needed immediately.