Waking up with an aching neck can throw off your entire day. The pain and stiffness makes it hard to get comfortable and focus on daily tasks. While occasional neck aches happen to most people, ongoing or severe pain could indicate an underlying condition that needs medical attention. Understanding the most common causes of neck pain can help you find relief.
One of the most common reasons for neck pain is straining the muscles, tendons, or ligaments in this area. Sleeping in an awkward position often leads to a stiff, achy neck in the morning. Poor posture while working at a computer or looking down at your phone strains the neck over time. Whiplash injuries from car accidents also damage the soft tissues of the neck.
Muscle strains usually feel worse when turning your head and may cause soreness along with aching. Applying a heating pad for 15 minutes at a time can relax tense muscles and increase blood flow. Over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen helps reduce inflammation. Gentle stretches and neck exercises can limber up the muscles and prevent future strain.
When the nerves running through the neck are compressed or irritated, it results in radiating neck and shoulder pain. A herniated disc, bone spur, or narrowing of the spinal canal puts pressure on the nerves. Turning the head may cause sharp, stabbing pain down the arm in addition to achy neck discomfort.
See a doctor for an exam if nerve-related symptoms accompany your neck pain. Treatment may include steroid injections to reduce inflammation or physical therapy to improve range of motion and strengthen the neck. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to correct a herniated disc or remove bone spurs irritating the nerves.
Osteoarthritis of the neck vertebrae or facet joints is another common source of neck pain, especially in older adults. Daily wear and tear as well as previous joint injuries contribute to degeneration of the cervical discs and joints. Bone spurs and inflammation develop, making neck movements painful and stiff.
Over-the-counter NSAIDs and heating pads can ease arthritis discomfort short-term. Your doctor may suggest prescription anti-inflammatories or steroid injections for stubborn neck arthritis pain. Gentle range of motion exercises keeps the joints flexible while strengthening the neck muscles for added support. If conservative treatments fail to provide relief, surgery may be an option.
Sudden neck movement from a car accident often sprains the muscles and ligaments of the neck. Whiplash leads to both stiffness and joint pain when turning the head. Headache, shoulder pain, numbness or tingling down the arms may also occur. Whiplash symptoms peak within days after the injury and generally improve within a few weeks.
Use a brace to stabilize the neck after an accident and take anti-inflammatories to ease pain. Applying ice for 10-15 minutes constricts blood vessels to reduce swelling and inflammation. After the first couple days, use heat to loosen up tense muscles. See a physical therapist for exercises that increase flexibility and strengthen the neck. If severe neck pain persists more than a few months after whiplash, you may need imaging tests to check for a herniated disc or other injury.
When neck discomfort becomes an ongoing issue or is accompanied by severe pain, neurological symptoms, or fever, see your doctor for an exam. Identifying the underlying cause is essential for proper treatment and pain relief. With the right care, most neck pain resolves within a few weeks. But if problems persist, don’t hesitate to follow up to find better solutions for managing discomfort. Paying attention to posture, stretching regularly, and avoiding injury can help keep your neck in good working order for the long term.