More than 5 million people google “neck pain” every month, and you might be thinking that what can happen if I do not treat my neck pain? The neck has the important job of carrying the head, providing it support and mobility. With the constant weight of the head, as well as other factors, the neck can sometimes hurt. Neck pain is more common than many people realise.
Neck pains have several causes, so the severity of the problem ranges from mild to chronic. Sometimes, especially when the pain is mild, people would want to ignore it and leave it untreated. Is this wise? Could neck pain mean something more?
This detailed article about neck pain will answer these questions and more. By the end, you’ll know:
- What causes neck pain?
- What could happen if you do not treat neck pain?
- Whether a problem in the neck can affect other parts of the body
- Self-care remedies to treat common causes of neck pain fast
Let us get started by looking at exactly what neck pain is.
What Is Neck Pain?
The neck helps provide support and mobility for the head. It consists of a complex arrangement of bones, joints, nerves, muscles, and ligaments.
The bones, called the cervical vertebrae, extend from the base of the skull to the upper torso. Sitting between each two vertebrae stacked on top of each other is a cervical disc which acts as a shock absorber.
The ligaments and muscles support the neck bones, making it possible to move the neck in different directions. The neck nerves (or cervical spine nerves as they are more appropriately called) branch out to specific parts of the body, providing sensation and functional control to those parts of the body.
Any problem with any of these (neck bones, joints, nerves, ligaments, muscles, etc) can result in neck pain.
Symptoms of neck pain include:
Sharp pain – An excruciating pain that is localized on one spot
Pain when moving – Pain in the neck region that is felt or exacerbated when moving the neck
Radiating pain – Pain in the neck region that spreads to other parts of the body like the arm. The radiating leading can also come with numbness
Stiff neck – Feeling that the neck is stuck when you try to move it
Due to the importance to the neck in terms of the quality of life, you should always treat symptoms with the highest level of seriousness. While seeing is symptoms ease off after a day or so may be the best call, it’s best not to take chances.
Unless you’re a medical professional, it can be very easy to misdiagnose your own neck pain. If you do, then this can lead to many further complications down the line.
So that you better understand what the next steps should be with your neck pain, we’ll give you all the information. We’ll go deep into the causes of neck pain, why you shouldn’t ignore it and steps you can take to stop you from getting neck pain again. Let’s read on to find out more.
Causes of Neck Pain
To understand the next steps you should take, it’s a good idea to look at why your neck may be hurting in the first place. This will allow you to give more accurate information to your doctor while also showing you what lifestyle changes you may need to make.
1. Strained muscles
The most common cause of neck pain is muscle strain, which comes from lifestyle options. Some of your daily activities and behaviours can put pressure on your neck, straining your neck muscles. These include:
- Poor posture while sleeping, sitting, standing, lifting things, and working
- Working for a long time without changing position
- Hunched over a desktop or laptop for a long time
- Driving and travelling for long distances
- Having your neck in a particular position for a long time when sleeping
- Forcing your neck beyond the limit, it can go during exercise
- Carrying a heavy load on your shoulder straps, or lifting it too quickly
Injury to the neck can happen when neck bones are fractured or when neck muscles and ligaments forcefully move beyond their normal range. Some of the things that cause this include:
- Falls from a height (e.g. falling from a ladder or roof)
- Slip and fall accidents (e.g. falling caused by wet floors and others)
- Accidents such as a vehicle collision
- Sports and exercise accidents that forcefully stretch ligaments and muscles
3. Heart attack
Heart attacks are caused by reduced blood flow to the heart caused by blockage or spasms of one or more coronary arteries. The problem with the arteries irritates the accessory nerve causing discomfort and pain.
So, heart attacks begin as subtle symptoms, some discomfort or pain in the chest, often spreading to the neck, shoulder, and back. Because people sense pain more easily in these areas, sometimes heart attack symptoms are felt as discomfort or pain in the neck, shoulder, and back, but not in the chest area.
That said, neck pain may be a heart attack warning sign.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane which covers the brain and the spinal cord.
Originating at the brain, the spinal cord goes through a hole at the base of the skull, courses through the cervical (neck) vertebrae, and down through the column, ending in the lumbar vertebrae.
As such, when meningitis strikes and the thin tissue covering the spinal cord is inflamed, the person will feel stiffness of the neck.
5. Some other medical conditions
Neck pain can be caused by a host of other medical conditions. These include:
Fibromyalgia – Often called widespread pain, fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain. The condition causes pain all over the body, including the neck.
Spondylosis (cervical arthritis) – Spondylosis is a type of arthritis called osteoarthritis. It is a degeneration of the spine characterized by bone spurs and wear of bone joints and intervertebral discs.
The most common type of this disorder is cervical spondylosis which affects the cervical vertebrae of the neck. A person with cervical arthritis will show symptoms like stiffness of the neck and pain that comes and goes.
Osteomyelitis and discitis – This is an infection and inflammation of the bone caused by fungi or bacteria. It causes painful bone swelling that may even lead to bone loss if untreated.
Cancer – This is a disease in which some of the body cells grow uncontrollably and spread to other parts of the body. Generally, cancers that involve spine tumours (like plasmacytoma, chordoma, osteosarcoma, and chondrosarcoma) attack the bone of the spine, and this causes neck pain. So persistent neck pain can be a warning sign of neck or head cancer.
As you can see here, there are times when neck pain is due to something minor such as poor posture, and at other times, it could be something a lot more serious. This is why it’s always important to treat neck pain with the utmost urgency. Next, we’ll look at the warning signs that you may be dealing with a serious neck problem.
Neck Pain Is a Serious Problem
True, sometimes, neck pain may be caused by a minor strain, and will go away with some stretching or lifestyle changes. However, other times, neck pain can also be a sign of something a lot scarier. As seen from the different causes of neck pain mentioned above, it may be a warning sign of heart attack, cancer, and more.
Unless you are a doctor, don’t presume that you can accurately tell the cause of your neck pain. It is important that you see a doctor about your neck pain, especially if:
The pain is severe – While you may want to ignore minor neck pain as caused by minor muscle strain, severe and excruciating pain may be pointing to something more serious.
The pain persists – Neck pain caused by minor strain should clear off in no time. So, if the pain persists for several days, it just may be a sign of some more serious problem.
The pain is radiating – If the pain spreads from your neck to your shoulders and arms, go straight for an examination
The pain is accompanied by headache or weakness – It is definitely more than a minor strain if neck pain comes with headache, weakness, or a fever.
The pain causes a loss of sensation – If you feel numbing in your finger and legs, or tingling in some parts of your body, then the neck pain is cause for concern
If you get any of these symptoms, then seeing if the pain will pass in a few days or hours can be very risky. Most neck pain won’t be because of a serious issue but you don’t want to take the chance.
What Happens If You Ignore Neck Pain?
What happens when you ignore neck pain depends on the cause of the pain. Unless you are a doctor and can accurately tell the cause of your neck pain, it is always wise to go for a medical examination if you have neck pain.
True, neck pains that are caused by benign conditions (like wrong positioning and posture) will resolve on their own within a few days. However, this will be after stressing you out and negatively impacting the quality of your life.
For example, when feeling pain, you may be unable to turn your head without discomfort. This forces you to limit the movement of your head, significantly affecting how you’ll go about your daily activities. You may also be unable to sleep, and this will affect your concentration.
Thus, even when neck pain is not a sign of anything serious, and could resolve on its own within a few days, ignoring it could have a negative impact on your quality of life. Even in these situations, a professional may prescribe the pain medicine you need or advise on stretches which can lead to quicker recovery time.
When neck pain is a symptom of some serious medical condition, ignoring it could lead to a full-blown medical issue, which could even be life-threatening.
- If the neck pain is caused by nerve compression, it could lead to numbness of parts of the arms.
- If the pain is caused by a fracture of the neck bones, it can cause the spinal cord to rupture, leading to permanent disability or paralysis.
- When the neck pain radiates from the chest region, ignoring it could imply ignoring signs of serious problems within the coronary arteries that can cause a heart attack.
- Sometimes neck pain is caused by bone infection, and ignoring this will cause bone inflammation that can lead to bone loss.
- Neck pain could come from spine tumours, and ignoring this could lead to full-blown cancer.
These are extreme examples, and as we mentioned before, most neck pain will be resolved quickly and without a serious underlying issue. However, due to the potential of a more serious injury, you should always look to get your neck pain treated.
Can Neck Pain Be Life Threatening?
Neck pain itself is not life-threatening, as pain is just a warning signal sent to your brain. This is because the pain is only a symptom of an underlying problem. It is a problem that can be life-threatening if it is a serious one.
For example, if the problem causing neck pain is a minor strain in the neck muscle, it is not life-threatening. However, if the problem causing the neck pain is as serious as a fracture of the neck vertebrae or spine tumours, then it can be life-threatening.
Whether it is an issue in your neck, back, legs or arms, if you have severe pain then it’s not a good sign. Your neck pain is overwhelmingly likely not to be caused by a life-threatening issue, but even if it isn’t, ignoring it can lead to chronic and prolonged pain.
Can Neck Pain Cause Problems Anywhere Else?
Based on how far-reaching the pain goes, neck pain can be axial or radicular.
In axial neck pain, the pain originates from the neck bones, joints, and ligaments, so it is limited mostly to the neck. But in radicular neck pain, the pain originates from the cervical spinal nerve, so it can extend beyond the neck to body parts like the shoulders and arms.
Understanding how spinal nerves work makes it easy to understand how pain in the neck can cause problems somewhere else in the body.
The spinal nerves branch off from the spinal cord to the rest of the body. This allows the brain to communicate with the rest of the body, providing sensation and functional control to the rest of the body.
There are 8 pairs of nerves (usually numbered C1 to C8) branching out of the cervical (neck) spine, and these innervate the neck, shoulder, and different parts of the arm.
If any of these cervical spinal nerves are compressed as it leaves the spine, you’ll experience neck pain. But you’ll also feel pain or a loss of sensation in the specific body part that the compressed nerve innervates.
There are different things that can cause the nerve to be compressed or pinched. A cervical disc can slip out of place and do the pinching/ compressing. Also, an inflammation in the neck tissue can cause swelling, thereby pressing in a cervical spine nerve in the space.
For example, the cervical spinal nerve C8 helps control the hand, with its dermatome covering the pinky side of the forearm. Thus, if your neck pain is caused by a compression of this nerve, you’ll also feel numbness in the pinky finger and the area of the palm below it.
Also, the cervical spinal nerve C4 helps control shoulder movement, with its dermatome covering parts of the neck, shoulder, and upper part of the arm. Thus, compression of this nerve will not only cause pain in the neck but could also cause burning or stabbing in the shoulder.
How to Cure Neck Pain Fast?
The treatment of neck pain depends on the cause. Since the cause of neck pain can range from minor (like muscle strain) to major (like a severe fracture), the cure for neck pain ranges widely from self-care options like taking over-the-counter pain relievers to surgical repair.
That said, the most common cause of neck pain is muscle strain from poor posture and support. So, most people wanting to know “how to cure neck pain fast” are referring to minor neck pains from muscle strains.
Such neck pain can be cured fast using the following self-care options:
Medication – Over-the-counter medication for pain and inflammation can help ease pain and reduce inflammation. Where the pain is caused by muscle spasms, muscle relaxants can also help.
Ice and heat treatment – Apply ice (using an ice pack) on the neck area for the first few days. Then apply heat (using a heating pad).
Exercise the neck – Gently stretch the neck up and down, then left to right
Neck massage – A gentle neck massage can reduce tension in the muscle, causing it to be stiff
Rest – A good rest is one of the best remedies for neck pain due to strain as it takes the pressure off your neck and allows the muscle to repair themselves
Simple Lifestyle Changes
If you have recurring minor neck pain then there is a good chance that a part of your lifestyle is causing the issue. If you consistently have minor neck pain, then check out if you are going any of the below. If so, make the changes and see if that helps.
Use good posture whether sitting or standing – Always ensure that your shoulders are in a straight line over your hips and that your eyes are directly over your shoulders.
Don’t sit or stand in one position for too long – Change your position often as the pressure build-up can lead to aches and pains.
Stop gritting your teeth – This puts pressure on your neck muscles and can cause a dull ache if you continuously do it.
Use a neck pillow when sleeping – This creates a good sleeping position where your neck and head is aligned with your body. Even if you’re sleeping position is not the cause, a neck pillow can be a good way to support your neck.
Don’t stay hunched over the computer for a long time – Adjust your chair or table so that the computer is at eye level.
Don’t tuck your phone between your neck and shoulder for a long time – You’ll be bending your neck awkwardly, and straining it.
Don’t carry heavy loads with your shoulder straps – With the weight pulling your shoulder to one side, your neck pulls the other way for balance, which strains it.
When a Stiff Neck Is Serious?
A stiff neck is a minor issue caused by muscle strain. It is generally not a cause of concern, as it can be treated with self-care remedies.
However, a stiff neck can be considered a serious problem if you experience it after an accident/ trauma, it is accompanied by other symptoms (see below), or it does not go away within a few days, especially after trying self-care remedies.
The symptoms that can accompany a stiff neck that should make you reconsider it as a serious problem are:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Difficulty breathing
- Headache or fever
- Numbness, loss of sensation, or tingling in the arms, shoulders, or legs
Can neck problems affect your brain?
Neck pain is always a symptom of some problem; sometimes this problem can be serious enough to affect the brain. A typical example is when the problem causing neck pain is craniocervical junction disorder.
The craniocervical junction is made up of the bone that forms the base of the skull (occipital bone) and the first two bones in the spine (which are in the neck). The lower part of the brain (called the brain stem) stretches through an opening at the bottom of the occipital bone to connect with the spinal cord.
Thus, any disorder of the craniocervical junction, such as misaligned bones, will put pressure on the lower part of the brain, on the top of the spinal cord, and on nearby nerves.
People with craniocervical junction disorder usually have neck pain, which is often accompanied by headaches starting at the back of the head. The neck pain and accompanying headache worsen when the person moves the head or bends forward.
Can neck problems affect your eyes?
Neck pain can also be caused by problems that can affect the eyes. For example, craniocervical junction disorder causing pressure on cranial nerves can affect eye movements.
When that happens, the person may have double vision or may be unable to move their eyes in a certain direction. Also, the person’s eyes may make repetitive, uncontrolled movements (side to side, up and down, or in a circular pattern). The abnormal eye movements cause reduced vision and a reduction in depth perception, and this affects balance and coordination.
The cranial nerves send electrical signals between the brain and different parts of the face, neck, and torso. The cranial nerves help you taste, hear, and smell, as well as blink your eyes and move your facial muscles.
So, if any of the cranial nerves is impaired, the function it “powers” will be impaired.
There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves, and 10 of these pairs start in the brain stem, which connects to the spinal cord at the craniocervical junction. These include the oculomotor nerve (which allows you to blink your eyes and to focus on an object in motion), the trochlear nerve (which allows you to move your eyes up and down), and the abducens nerve (which allows lateral movement of the eyeball).
Thus, if a disorder in the craniocervical junction (say misaligned bones) puts pressure on these pairs of cranial nerves that “powers” eye movements, the function is impaired.
Neck pain can be caused by mild muscle strain because of the wrong posture. Such neck pain can resolve on its own in a few days. But without treatment, it could negatively impact your quality of life. So, you may want to use over-the-counter medication and other self-care options to ease the pain.
However, neck pain can also be from more serious causes. It could result from accidents or trauma or may be a symptom of a serious medical condition. It can even affect the brain; leaving these categories of neck pain untreated can be life-threatening.
Thus, it is advisable to visit a medical professional to examine your neck pain. This is especially so if the neck pain is severe, radiates to other parts of the body, persists after employing self-care options, or is accompanied by other symptoms like headaches and chest pains.