As people age, the incidence of neck or back pain increases. Often the pain is caused by a muscle strain or tension that will resolve on its own in a few days. Stretches, exercises, heat or ice therapy, and over-the-counter medications for pain and inflammation are generally helpful. A change in posture or sleep position can relieve pressure on the neck and shoulders. Massage therapy can relax muscles and alleviate tension and spasms. However, pain that is persistent and interferes with daily activities or sleeping may indicate it’s time to schedule an appointment with the doctor.
The doctor’s evaluation of the problem area may include x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI, as well as the patient’s complete medical history. Early diagnosis of the problem can be key to managing the patient’s pain and helping the body heal.
The following guidelines may be considered when determining whether to consult a physician about neck pain.
- Pain that persists after several weeks of self-care
Neck pain, stiffness, and inflammation are common symptoms that may accompany various underlying problems. It’s helpful if the patient can remember a specific event or incident that may have triggered the pain, such as a fall or accident. Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor may recommend physical therapy, prescription medications, or injections for pain management.
- Pain that radiates down an arm or is accompanied by tingling or numbness
These symptoms may be caused by pressure on a spinal nerve root, or radiculopathy. Diagnostic tests will help the doctor identify which nerve roots may have inflammation. Arthritis and bone spurs sometimes press on the nerves, causing irritation. In other cases, a herniated disc may be causing the problem. Treatment will depend on the diagnosis.
- Neck pain accompanied by headaches
A cervicogenic headache is one that results from conditions affecting the neck or cervical spine, the discs, and supporting muscles and soft tissues. Migraine headaches can also have associated neck pain and tension. Symptoms of cervicogenic headaches often include pain on one side of the head and a limited range of motion in the neck. Certain neck movements can bring on the headache. Pain may also spread to the shoulder and arm on one side. Patients should be evaluated by their physician to determine the cause of the headaches. Treatment options for cervicogenic headaches can include physical therapy and pain injections or blocks. Surgery may be required if there are underlying disc or joint disorders.
- Pain following an injury
Pain following a sudden trauma such as a car accident or fall should be investigated by a physician. An impact that causes the neck to jerk forward or backward can cause whiplash. Along with the pain, the patient may experience tightness or stiffness in the neck, decreased range of motion, and headache. Sometimes the pain can be felt immediately but may also take several hours or days to manifest.
Most of the time, neck pain is not serious and will resolve on its own. However, persistent neck pain may indicate a serious problem that needs to be evaluated by a physician.