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Your neck is made up of vertebrae that extend from the skull to the upper torso. Cervical discs absorb shock between the bones. The bones, ligaments, and muscles of your neck support your head and allow for motion. Any abnormalities, inflammation, or injury can cause neck pain or stiffness.
Many people experience neck pain or stiffness occasionally. In many cases, it’s due to poor posture or overuse. Sometimes, neck pain is caused by injury from a fall, contact sports, or whiplash.
Most of the time, neck pain isn’t a serious condition and can be relieved within a few days. In some cases, neck pain can indicate serious injury or illness and require a doctor’s care. If you have neck pain that continues for more than a week, is severe, or is accompanied by other symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Neck pain or stiffness can happen for a variety of reasons.
This is usually due to activities and behaviors such as:
The neck is particularly vulnerable to injury, especially in falls, car accidents, and sports, where the muscles and ligaments of the neck are forced to move outside of their normal range. If the neck bones, or cervical vertebrae, are fractured, the spinal cord may also be damaged. Neck injury due to sudden jerking of the head is commonly called whiplash.
Neck pain can also be a symptom of a heart attack, but it often presents with other symptoms of a heart attack, such as:
If your neck hurts and you have other symptoms of heart attack, call an ambulance or go to the emergency room immediately.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the thin tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. In people who have meningitis, a fever and a headache often occur with a stiff neck. Meningitis can be fatal and is a medical emergency. If you have the symptoms of meningitis, seek help immediately.
Other causes include the following:
In rare instances, neck stiffness or pain occurs due to:
If symptoms persist for more than a week, consult with your doctor. You should also see a doctor if you have:
If you’ve been in an accident or fall and your neck hurts, seek medical care immediately.
You doctor will perform a physical exam and take your complete medical history. Be prepared to tell your doctor about the specifics of your symptoms. You should also let them know about all prescription and over-the counter (OTC) medications and supplements you’ve been taking. Even if it doesn’t seem related, you should let your doctor know about any recent injuries or accidents you’ve had.
Treatment for neck pain depends on the diagnosis. In addition to a through history and physical exam by your doctor, you may also need one or more of the following imaging studies and tests to help your doctor determine the cause of your neck pain:
Depending on the results, your doctor may refer you to a specialist. Treatment for neck pain may include:
Alternative therapies include:
Make sure you’re seeing a licensed professional when using these methods.
If you have minor neck pain or stiffness, take these simple steps to relieve it:
Many people experience neck pain because of poor posture and muscle strain. In these cases, your neck pain should go away if you practice good posture and rest your neck muscles when they’re sore. Make an appointment with your doctor if your neck pain isn’t improving with home treatments.
Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Medically reviewed on: Jul 31, 2017: Modern Weng, D.O.
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