Your neck has the tough job of holding up the same amount of weight as a bowling ball, and it must do so all day long. It’s not easy supporting an 11-pound head (give or take a few ounces) with some bones, muscles, and ligaments. That’s why things like poor posture or carrying a heavy shoulder bag can cause your neck to hurt from having to compensate.
“Neck pain is a problem that more than a quarter of American adults will experience in their lifetime,” says Carson Fairbanks, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth and at Texas Health Orthopedic Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “We all have joints in our neck that, just like other joints, have cartilage and fluid in them. And just like all the other joints of our body, that cartilage can become worn, injured or diseased and the fluid can diminish.”
Many things can cause your neck to hurt:
- Bad sleep habits
- Repetitive motion
- Poor posture
- Pinched nerve or strain
- Carrying a heavy shoulder bag or purse
- Gritting your teeth
- Sports injury or car accident involving whiplash
- Osteoporosis from a fracture or collapsed vertebra
- Fibromyalgia (widespread musculoskeletal pain)
- Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spaces within your spine)
- A slipped (herniated) disk or bone spur
- Spine tumor
What To Do If Your Neck Hurts
Pain and stiffness in the morning is common with neck issues. A warm to hot shower, heating pad and simply moving around can loosen up the neck and back enough to relieve symptoms, Fairbanks notes. Neck pain with prolonged sitting or standing is also common. Often, just moving and changing positions can help.
“These problems typically respond well to physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications or sometimes spinal injections,” Fairbanks says. “Anti-inflammatory medications work to reduce the pain or any swelling that might be present and muscle relaxants can allow time for healing to occur. Reducing physical activities or wearing a cervical collar may help provide support for the spine to reduce mobility and decrease pain. Trigger point injections, such as corticosteroids, injected right where they are needed can temporarily relieve pain as well.”
The good news is that many causes of neck pain are not life-threatening and resolve with time and conservative care. If, however, your neck hurts after a fall or an accident, or if the pain is intense, doesn’t respond to treatment, gets worse over time, or includes numbness, weakness or tingling and pain in your arms or legs, you should seek medical help right away.
“We have many tools to figure out what’s wrong, including the use of X-rays, MRI, a CT scan, EMG or blood tests,” Fairbanks adds. “Determining a treatment course largely depends on identifying the location and cause of the pain. It’s also extremely valuable to have the patient’s description of what they are feeling.”
When conservative treatment for neck pain does not provide sufficient and lasting relief, surgery may be needed. A patient may be a candidate for surgery if:
- Conservative therapy doesn’t provide relief.
- They experience a decrease in function due to persistent pain.
- They experience progressive neurological symptoms in the arms and legs.
- They have difficulty with balance or walking.
- They are in otherwise good health.
There are several different surgical procedures which may be beneficial for neck pain, depending on the specifics of the disease or injury, age, how long the pain has occurred, other medical conditions and if there has been previous cervical spine surgery. There are also options for approaches from the front of the neck or the back of the neck.
Spinal fusion is a procedure that creates a solid union between two or more vertebrae. Various devices, like screws or plates, may be used to enhance fusion and support unstable areas of the cervical spine to help alleviate severe and chronic neck pain.
With decompression or artificial disk replacement surgery, the damaged disk is removed and replaced with an artificial disk rather than fused.
How You Can Prevent Neck Pain
Neck pain can’t always be avoided, but Fairbanks offers these tips to reduce the chance of damage or discomfort:
- Fix your posture to fix your neck pain by sitting or standing with your shoulders directly over your hips and your head straight.
- Adjust your chair or desktop so your computer monitor is at eye level. Take frequent breaks.
- Don’t tuck your phone between your ear and shoulder. Use a speakerphone or headset instead.
- Try not to carry a heavy bag or purse with shoulder straps.
- Use a different pillow if you’re waking up with a stiff neck. A relatively flat pillow, or one with built-in neck support may be best.
- Sleeping on your back or side, not your belly, also allows your neck muscles and ligaments to get the rest they need.