Updated 3 May 2022 | Approved By Dr. Umberto Russo
What is Neck Pain?Neck pain is one of the most commonly reported physical problems to doctors. It describes any discomfort around the cervical spine (located between the head and shoulders). According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, approximately 4 million people in Australia will experience back and neck pain . Patients can often describe neck pain in several ways, including ‘sore neck’, ‘neck tenderness’ or ‘tension.’ Many structures around the neck could be responsible for this. Neck muscles, ligaments, bones, joints and nerves are just some of the many structures responsible for neck pain.
Neck Pain SymptomsNeck pain symptoms will vary depending on what is causing it. Generally, neck pain describes any discomfort around the cervical spine (located between the head and shoulders). Depending on the condition, the pain can be triggered by specific movements or constant throughout the day. Examples of common symptoms that be felt or accompany neck pain include:
- A tight and stiff neck
- Aching down the neck to the upper back
- Difficulty moving the neck
- Numbness along the neck to the fingers on the same side
- Hot or cold sensation running down the arm on the same side
- Noticeable weakness down the arm on the same side
- Tearing and/or ripping feeling
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Problems with speech (dysarthrtia)
- Random and uncontrolled eye movements (nystagmus)
Neck Pain Causes?Many conditions and injuries can cause neck pain. There are many sensitive structures around the neck, including nerves, bones, joints, ligaments and muscles, leading to symptoms. Examples of several neck pain causes include :
- Tightness and tension along with the neck muscles
- Arthritis (e.g. osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.)
- Neck spasms
- Neck strain (also known as a muscle tear)
- Neck sprain (also known as a ligament injury)
- Cervicogenic headaches
- Facet joint dysfunction
- Cervical spondylitis
- Cervical spondylolisthesis
Tests and DiagnosisDepending on your general health, symptoms, and neck pain presentation, your GP may recommend some or several tests for a diagnosis.
Physical ExaminationAfter a medical screening, your GP may request a physical examination of your neck. Examples include the ability for your neck to move, the ability to move your arms, assessing your balance etc.
Imaging InvestigationsImaging investigations, such as x-rays, MRIs, CT scans and ultrasounds, can also be referred from a GP. Once a referral is complete, you will need to go to a radiology centre where you will undergo the necessary testing under the guidance of your radiographer and/or sonographer. These imaging investigations will be able to detect any abnormalities (e.g. arthritis, facet joint dysfunction, etc.), injuries (e.g. fractures, spondylolisthesis, etc.) or structures around the neck.
Nerve Conduction StudiesThese are tests that your GP can also refer to for you if there is any suspicion of nerve injury from muscular or other types of conditions. Nerve conduction tests detect how fast electrical impulses travel through the nerve. Abnormal tests on these studies could suggest conductions, such as peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome or a disc herniation.
Neck Pain TreatmentsDepending on the presentation of your neck pain, your GP may recommend several strategies, treatments and/or involve other healthcare practitioners.
Lifestyle ChangesThere are numerous reasons for neck pain. Outside of physical injuries, there may be many other compounding factors contributing to the symptoms. As a result, your GP may recommend the following strategies based on your current lifestyle, including:
- Managing stress
- Postural changes
- Changing to another pillow for neck pain
- Limiting specific movements and activities
MedicationsYour GP can either prescribe or recommend over-the-counter pain medications. Always follow the medical advice from your referring doctor and/or the safety label on the medication package to ensure safe and effective use.
PhysiotherapyPhysiotherapists are qualified health professionals that specifically help patients with physical conditions, such as neck pain, back pain and sciatica. They will work closely with your GP to help provide a suitable treatment plan. Types of treatments that you may expect from your physiotherapist include:
- Corrective and strengthening exercises for neck pain
- Lifestyle strategies (e.g. postural changes, ergonomic recommendations, general advice, etc.)
- Manual therapy (e.g. joint mobilisations, manipulations, etc.)
- Electrotherapy (e.g. TENS, interferential, etc.)
- Dry needling
Medical SpecialistFor more severe and/or chronic conditions, your GP may also refer you to an orthopaedic specialist or neurologist. They will be able to provide you with their expert opinion about what other treatments may be able to assist with your neck pain condition (e.g. injections, surgery, etc.).
RecoveryMost episodes of acute neck pain are caused by mild strains, sprains and muscular tightness around the neck. Typically, these types of injuries will resolve within several days or weeks. However, more severe injuries (e.g. fractures, nerve conditions, etc.) may take several months to recover. Under some circumstances, these types of injuries need an immediate consultation with a medical doctor for urgent assessment and treatment. Chronic conditions that have lasted several months or years may require further medical input to resolve or prevent flare-ups.
ComplicationsMost signs of neck pain are mild and lead to short-term discomfort (e.g. stiffness, aches, etc.). Other complications (varying from mild to severe) can accompany neck pain in some circumstances. Examples include:
- Headaches and migraines
- Numbness and pain that travels down the arm
- Weakness down the arm
- Feeling of instability
- Inability to move the neck
Receiving quality care from highly experienced doctors is essential for a prompt diagnosis and receiving the correct medical treatment. With 24-7 MedCare, you can experience telemedicine from the convenience of your own home. Our friendly online doctors will be available 24/7 for a consultation, anytime and anywhere in Australia.
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- Teichtahl, A. J., & McColl, G. (2013). An approach to neck pain for the family physician. Australian family physician, 42(11), 774-778