Expert Health Articles

Neck Pain Causes and Treatment

Megan Verhoff, PA-C

Pain Management
Blanchard Valley Pain Management

Do you have neck pain? You’re not alone. Over half of all individuals develop neck pain during their lifetime with an annual prevalence in up to 40% of people. Most often, neck pain resolves on its own within just days to weeks; however, for some, it may last longer and require medical management. This article describes the causes of neck pain, provides some conservative treatment ideas, and describes when to seek medical attention.

Causes of Neck Pain

As we age, our spine wears out. We use terms like bulging discs, degenerative disc disease, or stenosis – all variations of arthritis. Most often, this diagnosis just means we are getting older. In fact, by 40 years of age, over 80% of people display some level of degenerative changes in their spine; however, there is a poor correlation between the level of degenerative changes and the amount of neck pain one experiences – with most people reporting no pain.

The cause of neck pain is variable. Sometimes neck pain is caused by trauma (i.e., whiplash), but most often, the cause remains unknown. So, when is it just a “crick” in the neck, or when is it more serious? Thankfully, there are some guidelines to look for more sinister dysfunctions. Most serious dysfunctions can be screened clinically (i.e., through history and examination) to determine if imaging, such as radiographs (X-rays) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is indicated.

Medical Consultation 

If you experience the signs and symptoms below in addition to neck pain, then medical consultation is recommended:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Trauma (such as a car accident)
  • Fever
  • Numbness and tingling in arms and/or legs
  • Unsteadiness with standing or walking
  • Weakness in the arms or hands
  • Continued pain despite self-treatment options.

If the above are not present, then self-treatment options or other conservative measures – such as physical therapy – have proven to be successful. Ice, heat, or topical creams may help alleviate acute onset pain. Exercise and postural awareness are often effective. When we sit or stand in slouched postures throughout the day, our muscles become imbalanced. When imbalanced, muscles become overworked, spasm, and become painful (what’s your posture right now?). Therefore, postural correction strategies help. For example, setting a reminder on your phone, watch, or a post-it note on a computer screen or car dashboard reminding yourself to sit up straight every one to two hours is one commonly used effective strategy.

Treatment Plans & Options

Physicians rely on clinical examination and diagnostic imaging to arrive at a treatment plan. These plans may consist of physical therapy, over-the-counter or prescription medication to help decrease inflammation and pain. Certain physicians, such as pain management physicians, can also offer options such as cervical spine steroid injections or other minimally invasive procedures. Finally, if symptoms continue and significantly impact quality of life, then surgical consultation may be warranted.

Overall, neck pain can be a “pain in the neck” and is a common issue for many people. Thankfully, it is often short-term. However, if initial self-treatment options are not successful, then there are various healthcare providers to assist with your care.