What Causes Neck Pain—And How Can You Relieve It?

What Causes Neck Pain—And How Can You Relieve It?
10.12.2023

Neck pain, sometimes called cervicalgia, is among the most common musculoskeletal conditions. About one in three people experience it on a yearly basis.1 Millions of people worldwide experience neck discomfort, including in the muscles, joints, bones, nerves, and discs (cushions between spinal vertebrae).2 Poor posture, muscle strain or overuse, injury, emotional stress, and underlying health conditions are common causes of neck pain.3

Whether it’s a nagging ache, stiffness, or sharp, shooting sensation, neck pain can disrupt your daily activities and impact your overall quality of life. Fortunately, many treatment options—including at-home remedies and medical interventions—can help manage neck pain.4 Understanding what’s causing your neck pain is the key to finding relief for your discomfort. 

Types of Neck Pain

Neck pain is often characterized by how long symptoms last.51

  • Acute pain: Lasts less than six weeks
  • Subacute pain: Lasts six to 12 weeks
  • Chronic pain: Lasts longer than three months

Pain can last from a few days to years, depending on the underlying cause. For example, neck strain symptoms tend to last about 4-6 weeks.6

Neck pain is also characterized by where you feel symptoms:1

  • Axial pain: Pain is mostly felt in the cervical spine (neck), but can spread to your shoulders.
  • Radicular pain: Pain radiates, or shoots, along nerves. You might feel it on the back of your head or down an arm. Radicular pain can cause tingling and muscle weakness.

Symptoms

Neck pain symptoms can vary from person to person, depending on the area and specific structure (e.g., muscles, discs) affected. Common symptoms of neck pain include:7

  • Dull, persistent aching that can range from mild to severe and may be in one specific area or spread across a larger area of the neck
  • Stiffness, leading to reduced mobility or difficulty turning your head
  • Sharp, shooting pain that may radiate from the neck to the shoulders, arms, or head 
  • Burning sensation, sometimes accompanied by tingling or numbness 
  • Tenderness, leading to pain when pressure is applied to the neck 
  • Headaches
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Causes of Neck Pain

The neck is vulnerable to pain and injury. It has a complex structure and provides constant support to your head’s weight. Many factors can affect the neck’s muscles, nerves, ligaments, bones, and discs.

  • Poor posture: Sitting, standing, or sleeping with incorrect spinal alignment can strain and weaken neck muscles. Prolonged periods of sitting (often due to long hours hunched over a desk or electronic devices) or carrying a backpack or purse improperly can also strain the neck.8
  • Muscle sprain/injury: Repetitive motions, sudden neck movements, accidents (e.g., whiplash), falls, or sports-related injuries can damage neck structures and cause pain.6
  • Stress and tension: Emotional stress can cause neck muscles to tighten, leading to muscle spasms and discomfort.9
  • Spinal abnormalities: Structural issues in the spine, such as scoliosis (a sideways curve of the spine forming an S- or C-shape) or kyphosis (a curve in the vertebrae of the upper back) can contribute to neck pain.10
  • Narrowing of the spinal canal: Narrowing of the spinal canal puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves and can lead to neck pain and other symptoms like numbness or arm weakness. This can be caused by conditions like cervical stenosis (narrowing of the cervical spine) or a herniated, or “slipped” disc (when the soft, jelly-like cushioning between vertebrae pushes outward due to weakened discs).51

Common age-related conditions that can cause neck pain include:

  • Cervical spondylosis: Age-related wear and tear of discs and joints can cause neck pain and stiffness, affecting about 80% of people over the age of 60.11
  • Degenerative disc disease: Intervertebral discs in the neck can wear down over time, leading to neck pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility as you get older.12 
  • Osteoarthritis: Age-related breakdown of joint cartilage in the neck can cause inflammation, pain, and limited neck movement.13
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Though rare, neck pain can be a sign of a serious condition like cancer. For example, it can occur from tumors in the neck or nearby structures.14

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