How do I know if my neck pain is serious? Many adults feel pain in their necks throughout their lives. The exact frequency of recurring neck pain is not universal. Moreover, there can be many reasons behind your neck pain. The underlying cause can be as simple as sleeping with a bad posture. However, the cause can be a complicated medical condition such as the pinching of nerves in the neck.
Neck pain is a generalized term and does not give much insight into the part of the neck affected on an anatomical level. The neck’s anatomy is composed of the spine, discs, ligaments, muscles, and bones.
These anatomical parts are important to know because neck pain arises when one or more parts of the neck anatomy deteriorate. Here we’ll have a detailed look at the types of neck pain, when your pain is serious and what can be done to prevent it. Let’s get started.
Types of Neck Pain
The most common type of categorization of neck pain uses the duration of the pain. There are three categories, depending on how long the pain lasts. These three are acute, subacute, and chronic neck pain. The duration for each is:
- Acute less than 6 weeks
- Subacute: between 6 and 12 weeks
- Chronic: longer than 12 weeks
The majority of neck pain cases are acute and improve over time naturally. However, pain due to more complicated medical conditions may last a long time and could potentially also become worse.
Additionally, when neck pain is discussed from a medical perspective, it usually refers to the pain at the back of the neck and not towards the front of it. This is because it is not common for the frontal region of the neck to be injured or affected by something to cause pain.
The frontal region of the neck includes the trachea (windpipe), important veins, and arteries such as the jugular artery, and the oesophagus (food pipe). The body has muscles and bones covering and protecting these essential body parts. Therefore, frontal neck injuries are uncommon due to their secure location and protective covering. However, in most cases, a powerful trauma (physical injury) to the front of the neck can prove fatal.
The pain in the frontal parts of the neck is mostly due to infections or other diseases. These infections or diseases primarily affect other parts of the body; neck pain is just a side effect. For example, pain due to tonsil inflammation in the common cold affects the frontal neck region. However, the problem is in the throat or tonsils, not in some part of the neck. Situations like these are not discussed under the same premise as neck pain that affects the spine and back.
Causes of Neck Pain
Neck pain can be caused by many possible medical conditions. However, it is often difficult to ascertain the exact cause of it. The difficulty results from our inability to differentiate between multiple conditions successfully by physical examination and imaging tests.
Conditions like bone degeneration and joint abnormalities are visible on the imaging test but do not correlate with pain intensity. In simpler terms, imaging tests can show a perfectly normal neck for a patient with severe neck pain. There have been recorded cases of people, with significant bone degeneracy or joint abnormalities exhibited in the imaging test, feeling little to no pain in the affected region.
Here is a list of neck conditions that may cause your neck pain. A disclaimer ahead of time, this article is not an alternative to a physician’s advice and should not be taken as such. If you feel you suffer from one of the following conditions, set up an appointment with your doctor for confirmation and treatment.
Cervical muscle strain (Cervical strain for short), is the straining of muscles that support the movement of the neck. These muscles include the cervical muscles (Neck muscles) and upper back muscles. Cervical strain is the most common type of neck pain.
It is caused because of injury to the muscles by physical stress from physical activities in daily life. These activities include poor posture, poor sleeping habits, overexertion during sports, and even sudden rapid movements.
Cervical strain can also result from long-term muscle tension due to psychological stress. Common symptoms of cervical strain are pain, tightness, stiffness, and discomfort in the upper back muscles. These symptoms can also affect the shoulder muscles. Cervical Strain is mostly acute and can up to six weeks before getting better.
Cervical Discogenic Pain
While cervical strain is the most common type of neck pain, cervical discogenic (relating to discs) pain is the most common cause of chronic neck pain. The discogenic pain arises when there is a degenerative change in the discs between cervical vertebrae (the segments of the backbone at the back of the neck).
Degeneration is a fancy term for the wear and tear of a body part in medical terms. The symptoms of cervical discogenic pain include pain in the neck when tilting or turning the head. At times, the pain worsens if the neck is held in the same position for a long time.
Activities such as working at a computer, driving, and reading can cause neck pain to intensify. You may also feel muscle tightness and spasms in the neck and back. You may also feel discomfort or referred (caused in one place but felt in another) pain in your arms or shoulders.
Similar to cervical discogenic pain, the pain is caused because of degeneration of a part of the neck. In cervical spondylosis, the cervical spine (the part of your spine in the neck region) degenerates. This causes the disc space between the vertebrae to narrow.
Additionally, it causes loss of normal square-shaped bones, and forms bone spurs (growths at the edges of bone). Bone spurs are not too serious usually. However, they can increase pressure on the surrounding tissues. The increase in pressure can sometimes pinch the underlying nerves causing pain.
The bones in the body experience wearing and tearing with age; this is completely natural, but serious degenerations are not normal. The symptoms of cervical spondylosis are neck pain, weakness, numbness in the arms or shoulders, headaches, and limited movement of the neck. In some cases of upper cervical spondylosis, you may also feel ear pain.
Cervical Myofascial Pain
In medical terms, ‘Myo’ means muscles, and fascia is the thin layer surrounding the muscle. A fascia is similar to the skin of a muscle. Cervical myofascial pain arises when the myofascial tissue is damaged, exposing the tight and tender areas of the muscle that are sensitive. Any pressure on these spots can give rise to pain and discomfort. Myofascial pain in the neck region can occur after trauma or because of mental health conditions such as psychological stress, depression, and insomnia.
Cervical Facet Syndrome
On the sides of your vertebrae are joints, called facet joints. These joints can be affected by arthritis; arthritis in these joints causes pain on the sides of the neck and the middle of the neck. Some people may even feel pain in their shoulders and around their shoulder blades. It can also cause pain in the ear, jaw, arms, and the base of the head. Cervical facet syndrome occurs most commonly among people with jobs that require them to tilt their heads backwards regularly.
Whiplash is an injury caused by sudden backwards or forward movement of the neck. It most commonly occurs in the events of vehicle accidents. However, it can also occur during sports if you are hit with a force strong enough to force the neck to bear all the weight of the head.
The rapid accelerating force affects many parts of the neck. These include the muscles, ligaments, bones, and joints. Those affected by whiplash suffer from severe pain in the neck as well as neck muscle spasms. Additionally, there can be headaches, ear pain, jaw pain, and a decrease in neck range of motion.
Diffuse idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis
Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) might seem like a daunting mouthful, but it is very easy to understand. Idiopathy means a disease with no known cause of origin; hyperostosis means excessive growth or thickening of bone tissue. In DISH, there is abnormal calcium deposition in the ligaments and tendons around the cervical spine.
The calcification causes them to harden and become unable to move fluidly. It is called idiopathic because people with DISH often have no symptoms. There have been cases of people suffering from stiffness, loss of mobility, and pain. This condition can also affect the middle (thoracic) and lower (lumbar) spine.
Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy
In cervical spondylotic myelopathy, there is degeneration in the spine that narrows the central spinal canal. The narrowing of the spine can damage and injure the spinal cord causing it to function improperly.
Cervical spondylotic myelopathy-affected people suffer from pain, loss of motion, weakness, difficulty in walking, coordinating movements, erectile dysfunction, inability to control bowels or bladder, and other neurological problems.
Myelopathy refers to a disorder or disease of the spinal cord. Cervical spondylotic myelopathy is a serious condition and requires medical assistance to prevent it from worsening as it can cause paralysis later in life.
Cervical radiculopathy is similar to cervical spondylotic myelopathy. The difference is that in cervical radiculopathy, only a single nerve root is affected. However, cervical radiculopathy can affect more nerve roots and slowly progress to cervical spondylotic myelopathy.
Like spondylotic myelopathy, the nerve root is pressed by degeneration of vertebral discs, arthritis of the spine, and regional cysts. Symptoms include pain, weakness, and numbness or tingling in the arms and shoulders. Ageing and injury can cause cervical radiculopathy. Additionally, herniation of a cervical disc is also a common cause of cervical radiculopathy.
How Do I Know If My Neck Injury Is Serious
Now that you know the different medical conditions that can lead to neck pain, let us discuss the signs that indicate if your neck injury is serious. Here are the major red signs to be on the lookout for if experienced in tandem with neck pain or neck injury.
Fever is our body’s most powerful immune response. A fever essentially raises the internal body temperature to create an environment that is unfavourable for diseases and pathogens. The fever is a sign of the body fighting against disease and healing itself.
You should consult a doctor to ensure that there is no correlation between your neck injury and the fever. Among all the red signs, fever is the most dangerous and must be considered a medical emergency of the highest degree.
When headaches accompany your neck pain, it is also a grim sign. Headaches are common outside of neck injuries. You might just be sleepless and tired or maybe just recently bumped your head somewhere. There is a chance that the headache is due to a neck injury. Thus it is better not to take a risk.
Nausea or Vomiting
If you feel nauseous while having pain in your spine or neck, it is likely to be caused by pressure acting on your spine. This is once again a sign of trouble and requires a visit to the doctor.
The spine and nerves are integral to the coordination of your movements, damage to your neck can cause disorientation and injure the nerves originating from your spinal cord. Therefore, if you feel difficulty in movement coordination along with neck pain. There is a chance of damage to your spinal cord.
Numbness and radiating pain
Numbness or tingling feeling is also a disorder of nerves. Numbness that is caused by sources of neck pain frequently affects the shoulders, arms, and upper body. However, it may also affect the legs and lower body.
Numbness means that the nerves are not properly functioning in an area. Similar to other symptoms, it is a problematic sign. Similarly, when your spinal cord is pressed by its surroundings, it will flare up in pain.
This pain will often radiate towards your arms or down your spine into the back. The feeling of this travelling sensation of pain is similar to that of a current going down your back. Radiating pain is a sign of nerve damage and should prompt a visit to the hospital immediately.
Inflammation is when the affected area exhibits the following five signs
- Redness and colouration
- Pain, touching causes pain to flare up
- Warm to touch
- Limitations of movement
Inflammation in any part of the body is a cause for concern. Although it is a healing process of the body, it is only triggered when the body suffers from excessive damage or infection. Inflammation in the neck region is extremely dangerous because it increases the pressure on the nerves, which in turn may lead to other complications and symptoms.
Dizziness and loss of consciousness
Damage to the neck area, specifically to the spine, can result in disorientation in one’s sense of balance. This can cause dizziness as well as fainting. Neck injuries do not trigger such adverse effects unless the damaged area is a sensitive one. Fainting is a sign of danger nearly as important as fever. It is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical consultation.
Pain without motion
Pain that arises from movements of the neck is caused by muscular strain in most cases. Muscular strains are not too concerning and will improve with rest and proper posture. Pain that persists despite keeping the neck stationary is evidence of non-muscular strains. This implies that the pain originates from the neck bones or nerves. Since conditions of the bone and nerves are serious medical problems, you should take it as an early warning sign.
Stiffness and limitations in range of movement
In cases such as arthritis or diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, there may be stiffness in your neck region without actual pain. There will be limitations in the range of movement of the neck because of the stiffness. They are the early signs of such diseases and their affected areas. Early consultation with a doctor can help you start remedial treatment immediately.
Can Neck Pain Be Something Serious?
Almost all neck pain is a cause of concern. Not all causes of neck pain are not dangerous medical conditions, and some of them do not pose a threat to your life. However, it is important to understand that the neck is a sensitive part of the body.
The area where neck pain originates is crucial to the rest of the body since it houses the spinal cord and the beginning of the backbone. The nervous system is well protected in the human body, but injuries to the neck can cause damage to them at a very base level. This can lead to physical disabilities and even endanger your life.
Hence, it is recommended to take all neck pain seriously. Nevertheless, if you are certain that the pain in your neck is due to bad sleeping habits or posture, you can get away with simple massage and painkillers as treatment.
A rule to follow for the pain assessment is: If the pain prevents you from falling asleep when tired, or if the pain persists longer than two days with no signs of improvement, it is serious and requires medical advice. The bottom line is, all neck pain is a risk, and it is better to visit a professional to be on the safer side.
How Can You Prevent Neck Pain?
If you do not already have neck pain, the best prevention for you is to avoid unhealthy postures and hold the neck in the same position for too long. Exercise your neck with a bit of stretching daily to keep it healthy.
Additionally, you should opt for occasional neck massages and chiropractic appointments to relieve the physical stress. A common misconception is that upright posture or holding your shoulders back reduces pain in the neck and shoulders.
The human backbone and neck are flexible, and there is no ideal position for them. Any posture is poor posture if you hold it for too long. A healthy posture is to change the position of the neck and back. You should stretch every few hours to maintain neck and back flexibility.
Exercises such as yoga and taichi can help strengthen your neck and back muscles to better protect them against straining. Also, many acupuncturists are capable of treating neck and back pain. You should consult your physician about it, as they may be able to recommend someone reliable.
If you already suffer from neck pain, you should visit a professional for neck pain treatment. While neck collars are popularly employed to help with a painful neck, you should consult a surgeon beforehand, as depending on your condition, you may need soft or hard neck collars.
Can neck pain be life-threatening?
The pain itself is not a threat to your life. Pain is a self-preservation response of the body. It is there to let you know if something is wrong. The pain will not kill you; however, it can be a sign of some underlying medical problem. The neck is a very sensitive area and any problems in the neck region can prove to be crippling and fatal if left unchecked for too long.
How long should neck pain last?
It depends on the cause of neck pain. Muscular strains are the least problematic and the pain will last less than 6 weeks (acute). Other complicated cases that involve pressure on the nerves can last for more than 12 weeks (chronic). A surgeon can diagnose your condition and tell you the estimated duration the best.
What is the fastest way to relieve neck pain?
You can try the following for quick relief.
- Apply ice or something cold at the site of pain for the first 48-72 hours
- After 72 hours of cold if the pain does not improve, use heat instead. You can use a towel with warm water or a warm shower for this
- Apply over-the-counter painkiller creams at the location
- Keep the neck in a resting position and avoid unnecessarily moving it
- Gently massage the affected area; you can maximize the effectiveness if you combine the massage with pain-relieving cream
- Use a neck collar to reduce stress on your neck. Consult your doctor beforehand to know whether your situation requires a soft collar or a hard collar
- In case of muscle strains, you can take muscle relaxants to relieve your pain. However, they are not available over-the-counter and require a doctor to prescribe them to you
All neck pain should be treated with the highest levels of caution. If you try to ignore it and do further damage, then a previously minor issue could develop into something far more serious.