What Kind of Doctor Should I See for Neck Problems?

Neck pain is very common, affecting up to 70% of people at some point in their lives. While neck pain often resolves on its own, it can also be recurring or severe enough that you need to see a doctor. But with many different specialists that treat the neck, it can be confusing to know which type of doctor to see. Here’s an overview of the common causes of neck problems and the doctors who treat them.

Causes of Neck Pain

Neck pain has many possible causes, including:

  • Poor posture – Slouching or having your neck bent forward for long periods can strain the muscles and lead to pain.
  • Injury – Car accidents, sports injuries, or falls can sprain ligaments or strain muscles in the neck.
  • Arthritis – Osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis in the neck vertebrae or joints can cause stiffness and pain.
  • Herniated disc – Discs between the vertebrae can bulge or rupture, pressing on nerves and causing numbness or weakness.
  • Pinched nerve – Nerves can become compressed, especially by bone spurs or herniated discs.
  • Muscle strain – Overuse injuries from sports, exercise, or repetitive motions can strain the neck muscles.

Types of Doctors for Neck Pain

Primary Care Physician

Your primary care physician (PCP) is usually the first doctor to see for any new or recurring neck problems. They can perform an exam, order imaging tests like x-rays or MRIs if needed, and prescribe medications to help relieve pain and inflammation. For mild neck strains, your PCP may recommend rest, ice/heat, over-the-counter pain relievers, and home exercises. They can also refer you to a specialist if the cause of your symptoms is unclear or your condition worsens.

Orthopedic Doctor

If you have severe, worsening, or long-lasting neck pain, or pain after an injury, your PCP may refer you to an orthopedic doctor. Orthopedists specialize in diagnosing and treating muscle, bone, joint, tendon, and nerve injuries or conditions. For neck pain, they can identify issues like herniated discs, pinched nerves, bone spurs, or spinal instability. In addition to medications and therapy, they may recommend specific exercises, braces, steroid injections, or surgery if needed.

Neurologist

A neurologist specializes in conditions affecting the nerves, including those related to neck pain like radiculopathy (pinched nerve). They can run tests to evaluate nerve function and determine where a compressed nerve is located. In addition to medications, they may recommend procedures like nerve blocks or epidural steroid injections to reduce inflammation around nerves. In severe cases, surgery may be needed to decompress a nerve.

Rheumatologist

If your neck pain is due to an autoimmune or inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis, you may need to see a rheumatologist. These specialists diagnose and treat joint disorders and diseases. They can provide medications to relieve arthritis symptoms and slow the progression of damage to the joints. For severe arthritis in the neck, surgery may be an option to repair and stabilize the damaged joints.

Physical Therapist

A physical therapist can provide hands-on treatment and exercises to alleviate neck pain and improve range of motion, strength, and function. They use techniques like stretches, mobilization, massage, ultrasound, traction, and dry needling. A physical therapist can also recommend ergonomic changes to help prevent future neck strain. Following an initial doctor’s evaluation, physical therapy is often one of the first treatment options for muscular neck pain.

Chiropractor

Chiropractors focus on conditions affecting the muscles, joints, and spine. They use manipulations and adjustments to treat restricted motion or alignment issues in the spinal column. For neck pain, they may use neck adjustments to improve mobility and reduce nerve irritation. While results are mixed, some studies suggest chiropractic treatment can modestly improve acute neck pain. It’s best combined with other treatments like exercise.

When to See a Doctor

Make an appointment with your PCP if you have severe neck pain that persists more than a few days, or neck pain accompanying numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms or hands. Seek prompt medical care if you experience loss of bladder or bowel control along with neck pain. While waiting for your appointment, you can try OTC pain medicine, ice packs, and gentle neck stretches. But avoid any movements that worsen the pain. Getting an accurate diagnosis is key to finding the right treatment and getting relief from your neck symptoms.