Waking up with a swollen, sore neck can be alarming. The delicate muscles and structures in the neck make it prone to injuries and inflammation. Several conditions can cause neck swelling and pain. Identifying the cause is key to finding the right treatment. Here are some of the most common reasons for a swollen, sore neck and how to get relief.
One of the most common culprits behind a sore, swollen neck is poor posture. Slouching at your desk, staring down at your phone, or sleeping in an awkward position can strain the muscles in your neck over time. This leads to inflammation, swelling, and tenderness.
To prevent posture-related neck pain, be mindful of your neck position throughout the day. Hold your phone up higher so you aren’t looking down constantly. At your desk, align your shoulders over your hips and avoid hunching over. Use a pillow that keeps your neck aligned when sleeping. Taking breaks to stretch and roll your neck can also help relieve muscle tension.
If you’ve been in a car accident recently, whiplash could be the cause of your sore, swollen neck. Whiplash occurs when the head is suddenly jerked back and forth, overstretching the muscles and ligaments in the neck. This type of neck injury often causes pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Treating whiplash involves rest, ice packs, over-the-counter pain medication, gentle stretches, and time. See your doctor if pain persists for more than a few days. Physical therapy, pain injections, or muscle relaxants may be needed to aid healing. Wearing a soft cervical collar can also help support the neck after this type of injury.
A pinched nerve in the neck can also lead to localized pain, swelling, numbness or tingling. A herniated disc, bone spur, or tight muscles compressing a nerve root is often the culprit. Turning the head certain ways and improper neck positioning typically exacerbates the symptoms.
Consult your physician if you suspect a pinched nerve in your neck. Your doctor may prescribe medication, physical therapy, or exercises to help reduce nerve compression. In severe cases, surgery may be required to repair a herniated disc or remove bone spurs irritating the nerve.
Tonsillitis, or inflammation of the tonsils, often leads to swollen lymph nodes in the neck. This can cause sore, tender lumps around the jaw and neck. Difficulty swallowing, fever, and throat pain are also common with tonsillitis.
Viral infections are the most common cause of tonsillitis. The swelling should subside as the infection clears. Drink plenty of fluids and gargle saltwater to ease discomfort. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help reduce swelling and soreness. See your doctor if symptoms persist or worsen. Antibiotics are sometimes needed for severe bacterial tonsillitis cases.
Strep throat stems from a bacterial infection that also triggers swollen, tender lymph nodes around the neck. Additional strep throat symptoms include pain with swallowing, fever, headache, and raw throat.
Doctors can confirm strep throat with a quick throat swab test. Treatment involves antibiotics to clear the bacterial infection. Rest, fluids, saltwater gargling, and OTC pain meds can also provide symptom relief. If left untreated, strep throat can lead to serious complications, so see your doctor right away if you suspect this is the cause.
The thyroid gland located in the neck regulates hormone levels that control metabolism. When the thyroid is underactive (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism), it can lead to neck swelling and soreness.
An enlarged thyroid, or goiter, is a common sign of thyroid issues. The inflammation and expansion of the gland causes soreness, tenderness, and swelling in the neck area. Other symptoms include unexplained weight changes, fatigue, and weakness.
Thyroid hormone blood tests help diagnose thyroid disorders. Treatment typically involves synthetic thyroid hormone medication to balance hormone levels. Radioactive iodine and surgery are options for shrinking an enlarged thyroid gland if medications aren’t effective.
Lymph Node Infection
The lymph nodes in the neck swell as they fight infection. A bacterial or viral infection near the neck area can trigger enlarged, tender lymph nodes under the jaw and around the neck. Ear infections, sore throats, and dental infections often lead to swollen, sore lymph nodes as the body combats the illness.
Lymph node infections usually clear up as the underlying infection improves. Apply warm compresses and OTC pain medication to help reduce swelling and discomfort. If the nodes stay enlarged for more than 2-4 weeks, see your doctor to rule out a more serious issue. Antibiotics may be prescribed if the infection persists.
Meningitis, or swelling of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and brain, can also cause a sore, swollen neck. Bacterial or viral infections of the fluid in the skull and spine lead to meningitis. Swelling along the neck and pain with bending the head are common symptoms. Severe headache, fever, nausea, and mental confusion can also occur.
Viral meningitis usually resolves after 7-10 days. Bacterial meningitis is life-threatening and requires emergency medical treatment. Seek immediate care if you suspect you or a loved one has meningitis. Swift antibiotic treatment is crucial for preventing permanent brain damage from bacterial infections.
In rare cases, unexplained neck swelling and soreness can stem from cancer. Cancers affecting the mouth, throat, voice box, thyroid, or lymph nodes may first appear as lumps or enlarged glands in the neck. Difficulty swallowing and neck pain are other possible symptoms.
See your doctor as soon as possible if you have persistent, unexplained neck swelling. Your physician will examine your neck and likely order imaging tests to detect any abnormal growths. Cancer treatment varies based on the location and stage of the tumor. Early intervention is key to successful treatment.
When to See Your Doctor
Minor neck pain and swelling often resolve with rest, ice, heat, and OTC medications. However, seek prompt medical care if you experience:
- Extreme neck pain or stiffness along with swelling
- Lumps or swollen glands lasting more than 2-4 weeks
- Difficulty swallowing, breathing, or moving your head
- Fever, headache, nausea, or weight loss along with neck swelling
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms or hands
- Neck swelling after a recent injury or car accident
A sore, swollen neck can stem from various underlying causes. Infections, poor posture, injuries, thyroid disorders, and some cancers can all trigger neck pain and inflammation. Pay attention to any associated symptoms you’re experiencing and see your doctor for an exam and accurate diagnosis. Proper treatment will help alleviate your sore, swollen neck so you can get back to feeling your best.