What Doctor Should I See for Neck Pain?

Neck pain is very common, affecting up to 70% of people at some point during their lives. While neck pain often resolves on its own within a few weeks, persistent or severe pain may require seeing a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. But with many different types of doctors that treat neck conditions, it can be confusing to know where to start. Here is an overview of the common doctors you may consider seeing for neck pain and how they can help:

Primary Care Physician

Your primary care physician (PCP) is usually the first doctor to see for any new health complaint, including neck pain. They can perform an initial evaluation, order imaging tests if needed, prescribe pain medication, and determine if your symptoms may require specialized care from another physician. PCPs are able to diagnose and treat basic causes of neck pain such as muscle strains, poor posture, arthritis, and disc problems. If the cause is more complex or severe, they can refer you to a specialist.

Orthopedist

An orthopedist specializes in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal conditions involving the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They often treat sports-related injuries but also other orthopedic issues like neck pain. Orthopedists can order x-rays or advanced imaging tests to pinpoint the structural cause of neck pain, such as a herniated disc, pinched nerve, spine misalignment, or fracture. They can provide nonsurgical treatments but may also perform surgery if necessary, such as cervical spinal fusion or disc replacement. Your PCP may refer you to an orthopedist if they suspect an injury, neurological compression, bone spurs, or other structural problems causing your neck symptoms.

Neurologist

A neurologist specializes in conditions involving the brain and nerves, including those related to neck pain. Symptoms like numbness, tingling, weakness in the arms and hands, shooting pains, balance problems, and headaches may indicate a neurological cause like a pinched nerve or compressed spinal cord. A neurologist can administer tests to evaluate nerve function and refer you for EEGs, nerve conduction studies, MRIs, and CT scans to view the cervical spine and nervous system in more detail. They can provide medications, injections, or physical therapy and discuss surgical options if nonsurgical treatments are ineffective. Ask your PCP for a referral to a neurologist if your neck pain radiates along nerves or is associated with neurological symptoms.

Physical Therapist

Seeing a physical therapist (PT) can be very beneficial for treating certain causes of neck pain through hands-on care, exercise, and advice to improve posture and strengthen muscles supporting the neck and spine. Physical therapists perform a thorough evaluation to determine factors contributing to your neck pain, such as poor posture, strain from overuse, tight muscles, joint restrictions, disc problems, or vertebrae alignment issues. They create a customized treatment plan that may include massage, stretching, therapeutic exercises, traction, and other techniques to relieve pain and improve range of motion. Your PCP or other treating doctor can give you a referral, or you can seek out a PT directly.

Chiropractor

A chiropractor focuses on diagnosing and treating problems with the joints and alignment of the spine that can manifest as neck pain. They use their hands to perform spinal manipulation and other techniques to adjust the vertebrae. The goal is to realign the spine to restore mobility and relieve pressure on nerves that may be causing radiating neck and arm pain. Chiropractors also suggest postural corrections and exercises to strengthen the neck and prevent future issues. If spinal manipulation provides relief, ongoing chiropractic care may be recommended to help manage chronic neck pain. Check with your insurance provider, as chiropractic treatment may be fully or partially covered.

Pain Management Specialist

If you still experience frequent or severe neck pain after trying various conservative treatments, a pain management specialist can help provide relief. Also known as pain medicine physicians, they have expertise in using different techniques to manage acute and chronic pain. These may include nerve block injections, steroid injections directly into the cervical spine, Botox injections to relax muscles, implanted nerve stimulators, and prescription medications. A pain medicine doctor can also refer you to other specialists like surgeons, physiatrists, or physical therapists as needed to address the cause of pain. Getting a referral to a pain specialist makes sense if neck pain is significantly impacting your daily life.

When to See a Doctor

It’s a good idea to consult a doctor if neck pain does not improve within a few days to a week with rest and over-the-counter pain medication. Seek prompt medical care for neck pain accompanied by symptoms like numbness or weakness in the arms and legs, loss of bladder or bowel control, fever, headaches, dizziness, or unexplained weight loss. Such symptoms could indicate a serious underlying medical condition requiring specialized treatment. Otherwise, your PCP is a good first stop when deciding what doctor to see for nagging neck pain. They can examine you, provide an initial diagnosis, and get you referred to the appropriate specialists if needed. With the right doctor overseeing your care, you can find relief from neck pain.