Having a neck is great and all, but the odds are pretty high that yours will act up at some point in your life and cause pain. Your neck pain could just present as a little soreness, or it could be a more intense pain that makes it tough to do otherwise simple things like turn your head.
Neck pain rarely leads to more serious problems, the Mayo Clinic explains, but that doesn’t exactly mean it’s fun. Here are some of the most common reasons why you might experience neck pain, plus what to do about them.
1. You have a pinched nerve.
Your neck (also known as your cervical spine) is made up of seven bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other. Between each of these bones are little cushions, basically, called discs. These discs have soft centers inside harder exteriors, and sometimes you can get what’s called a herniated disc, which is when some of that soft stuff pushes through a tear in the exterior.
“The disc itself bulges past its normal limits and can compress nerves leaving the spine,” Anthony F. Guanciale, M.D., spine surgeon and associate professor of orthopaedic surgery the University of Cincinnati, tells SELF. Bone spurs, which are tough projections that can develop along the edges of your bones, may also do this, the Cleveland Clinic says.
When you have a compressed nerve in your neck, you may experience localized pain, numbness, and tingling that potentially extend into your shoulder and arm on one side, Dr. Guanciale says. (Nerves in your neck supply sensation to those parts of your body.)
In most people, symptoms of nerve compression will get better in a few days or weeks with the help of rest and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), according to the Mayo Clinic. Physical therapy can also be helpful to try to minimize pain. In the most severe cases, you may need surgery to relieve the source of compression.
2. You strained a muscle or tendon in your neck.
The term “strain” is thrown around a lot, but it actually means you stretched or tore a muscle or tendon (a fibrous cord of tissue that links muscles to bones), the Mayo Clinic says.
This can happen in your neck for a bunch of different reasons, including spending way too much time hunched over your phone or computer or sleeping with your neck at an odd angle. But it can also be due to a really, really simple movement, like craning your neck under the sofa to get dust bunnies as you clean your place. “Many people believe that a strain has to occur after a significant physical activity, but it can just be an injury after a somewhat normal physical activity,” Dr. Guanciale says. Basically, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed if you happen to strain your neck while reading in bed—it happens.
Treatment for a strain usually involves resting your neck as best you can, the Mayo Clinic says. You can also ice the area for 15 to 20 minutes every two or three hours after the pain emerges, and try to keep your neck as still and supported as possible. (Think: wearing a travel pillow while sleeping, Neel Anand, M.D., professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF.) Usually, that’s all you’ll need, and you’ll feel better within days or weeks. But if your strain is severe and at-home remedies don’t seem to be working, you might need surgery to repair torn muscles or tendons.
3. Some of your joints are worn down.
A not-so-fun part of getting older: Over time, the joints in your body—including those in your neck—wear down. You can blame this on a condition called osteoarthritis, which causes the degeneration of cartilage (the slippery tissue that protects the ends of bones in a joint), according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Healthy cartilage works by absorbing shock as you move, so when you don’t have as much of the stuff, problems can arise when your bones rub together. Specifically, you can form those bone spurs that might cause compression or affect your ability to move your neck properly.
You can’t reverse osteoarthritis, but you can usually manage the symptoms with lifestyle changes (like icing your neck), physical therapy, and medications such as NSAIDs, the Cleveland Clinic says. “Those are first-line treatments,” Zarina Ali, M.D., an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Penn Medicine, tells SELF. If none of that seems to help or you’re only getting minor improvement, your doctor may recommend you undergo cortisone injections (which can relieve pain in your joints), injections of hyaluronic acid (which can add some very necessary cushioning), or surgery, the Mayo Clinic says.
4. You have whiplash.
Whiplash is a neck injury that’s due to a forceful, fast, back-and-forth movement of your neck (like a cracking of a whip). It doesn’t only happen in car crashes; whiplash can also be due to a sports accident, physical abuse, or other trauma, according to the Mayo Clinic.
When you get whiplash, the various tissues of your neck get injured, causing symptoms like stiffness, headaches starting at the base of your skull, fatigue, dizziness, blurry vision, problems concentrating, and tenderness or pain in your shoulders, upper back, or arms, according to the Mayo Clinic says. These typically set in within 24 hours of the injury.
Some people with whiplash can get better by resting, applying hot or cold packs for up to 15 minutes multiple times a day, using over-the-counter pain medications, and doing gentle stretches to exercise the neck as directed by their doctor. But you might also need more intensive treatment like muscle relaxants, numbing injections, physical therapy, or using a foam collar for a little while to help stabilize your neck, the Mayo Clinic says. This is why it’s key to see a doctor if you have neck pain after an injury rather than just trying to self-diagnose and treat your symptoms.
5. You have an underlying health condition.
Although it’s much more likely that your neck pain is due to something like a strain or pinched nerve, conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis, and cancer can cause neck discomfort as well.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of the joints, potentially including the ones in your neck, leading to painful swelling and gradual damage to your bones and joints, the Cleveland Clinic explains.
Meningitis is another inflammatory condition, this time of the membranes surrounding your brain and spinal cord. A stiff, potentially painful neck is often a sign of this health issue, the Mayo Clinic says.
Cancer can hurt your neck in a few ways, depending on the type you have. For instance, if you have cancer that destroys bone tissue in your neck, that can cause pain, as can having a tumor that compresses a nerve, Dr. Anand says.
If you’ve had neck pain for more than a week and it’s not getting better with at-home treatments (or it’s actually getting worse), you should definitely check in with your doctor.
And if you have weakness in your hands and legs, severe shooting pain that’s intensifying, or you’re losing control of your bladder or bowels, it’s time to head to the emergency room, Dr. Anand says. That can signal something like a serious strain or compressed nerve.
If you see a doctor for neck pain that won’t quit, they’ll often recommend undergoing some kind of imaging like an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI to try to get a better look at what’s going on in there, the Mayo Clinic says. From there, they’ll recommend a specific treatment plan to try to get you—and your neck—feeling better soon.