7th June, 20203 min read

When to worry about neck pain and what to do

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Tomas Duffin
Tomas Duffin
Last reviewed: 08/06/2020
Medically reviewed

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Neck pain is a common condition that affects between 40% and 70% of people significantly at some point in their lives.

For up to 20% it will go on to become a long-standing condition -- and it’s not only older people who suffer from it.

Most cases of neck pain are harmless and don’t have a serious underlying cause, but occasionally it may be a symptom of something more serious that needs medical attention.

Common causes of neck pain

Neck pain can be the result of everyday living, such as:

  • bad posture
  • sleeping in an uncomfortable position
  • holding your neck in the same position for a long time - for example when reading, driving or using a computer

But occasionally neck pain can be the result of a more serious underlying condition.

Common symptoms of neck pain

Neck pain can be associated with various symptoms besides the pain itself. This can include:

  • a stiff neck and/or shoulders
  • pain that spreads to one or both shoulders
  • pain that spreads to the arms
  • pain that radiates up to the back of your head
  • pins and needles -- this is not usually a worrying sign but should be investigated by a doctor as it suggests you may have a trapped nerve

But other symptoms can be a sign of something more serious.

Sleeping and neck pain

Red flags for serious causes of neck pain

Occasionally, you may experience symptoms like the ones above or others that should act as a warning sign for you to see a doctor.

Look out for the following:

  1. Do your arms or legs feel weak or are you having trouble with your coordination? Are you also having problems urinating or pooing?

These symptoms could be a sign of pressure on the spinal cord (spinal cord compression or myelopathy).

  1. Do you have a fever (high temperature)?

This could be a sign of an infection such as meningitis, which affects the protective tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

  1. Have you lost weight recently for no apparent reason?

This may be a sign of a spinal cord tumour pressing on the spinal cord or nerves.

  1. Have you got a headache, jaw, shoulder or hip pain or visual loss?

This can be a sign of a rheumatic disease such as giant cell arteritis, which causes the arteries in your neck to become inflamed.

  1. Have you recently been involved in any kind of physical trauma such as a car accident?

You could be experiencing whiplash, which is a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.

If you answered yes to any of the above questions you should see a doctor as soon as possible as you may need immediate treatment.

What will a doctor do for my neck pain?

A doctor will take your medical history, speak to you about your neck pain and may perform a physical examination.

If you have any of the ‘red flags’ above they may organise additional tests such as an X-ray or MRI scan to look at your spine.

Once a more serious cause has been ruled out they may refer you for physiotherapy.

If you don’t have any of the ‘red flag’ symptoms but your neck pain has lasted for more than a few weeks, you should visit a doctor.

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