When ‘A Pain in the Neck’ Gets Real

For many – maybe you – a pain in the neck is more than a figure of speech. It’s real neck pain. And you want it to go away.

How to relieve chronic neck pain, though, depends on what’s causing it. And the causes of neck pain can be many.

Causes of Neck Pain

Max Berdichevsky, MD, of Premier Orthopedic Spine Center, says common causes of neck pain include: 

  • Traumatic injury: “Not necessarily serious trauma, but often from more common incidents such as whiplash from a vehicle collision,” Dr. Berdichevsky says. A rear-end crash, for instance, forces your head to whip back, then abruptly forward. This strains the soft tissues of the neck – the muscles and ligaments – and the joints of your neck. 

Falls and impact in sports can cause similar neck injuries. 

  • Lifestyle/poor posture: Repetitive activity and poor body mechanics, like slouching in front of a computer, can cause muscle fatigue or wear and tear on vertebrae, the small bones that make up the spine, including the neck. 

Smartphone use has become a common contributor. If you’re like most, you tilt your head forward and down as you text or browse social media and websites. This leads to a condition commonly referred to as “tech neck.” The same can happen when you work at a computer or read books. 

Another common lifestyle issue: Sleeping in an uncomfortable position with an ill-fitting, unsupportive pillow that overextends your neck. 

  • Occupational stresses: For instance, viewing a laptop or desktop computer screen for long periods of time in a hunched position that stresses your neck and back. Other causes include improper form in lifting heavy objects at work or weights in the gym. 
  • Degeneration of joints and discs: Injury and aging can cause neck joints to gradually wear to the point the vertebrae rub against each other. This forms bone spurs, abnormal growths of bone that put pressure on nerves and cause pain. And discs that absorb shock between vertebrae in the neck also wear and flatten over time. This leaves less space for nerves, pinching them and causing pain. And the soft gel-like center may push through a crack in the exterior of a disc – a herniated or ruptured disc – which irritates nerve roots. 

In rare cases, infections and tumors may lead to neck pain.

Sleep with a firm pillow that keeps your neck and spine in a straight line.

When to Call Your Doctor for Neck Pain

When Pain in Neck Gets Real small

When your neck aches, how do you know when it’s time to call your health care provider? Dr. Berdichevsky recommends:

  • You have severe neck pain after an athletic injury, fall or car accident. If you’re not cared for by a paramedic at the scene, you should seek medical attention immediately.
  • Your neck pain is severe or persists and doesn’t go away in two to three weeks after you modify your body positioning, such as improved posture. 
  • You experience pain, numbness or weakness that radiates down your arms and legs. This could be a sign of radiculopathy – a herniated or ruptured disc, as described above.
  • You have difficulty maintaining balance. Balance issues may indicate myelopathy, a compression of the spinal cord. This requires immediate medical attention. “If you can’t see your doctor right away, go to the emergency room,” Dr. Berdichevsky advises.

How to Avoid Neck Pain

You can reduce your risk of neck pain by using ergonomic workstations, such as standing desks, and positioning your computer monitor so you don’t have to flex your neck.

Other preventive measures that Dr. Berdichevksy recommends include: 

  • Take breaks from using your smartphone – to give your neck a break.
  • Hold your smartphone up, so you don’t have to bend your neck down to view the screen. 
  • Extend your neck up, to stretch out the muscles, when you feel a pull on your neck. 
  • Sleep with a firm pillow that keeps your neck and spine in a straight line. If you have a good, supportive mattress, but a pillow that allows your head and neck to sink in, you may wake up with neck and back pain. The same goes for a pillow that props your head up too far.