Common Causes of Neck Pain and When you Need to See A Physical Therapist

Neck pain affects many people on a daily basis. In fact, in 2012, the CDC found that approximately 14.3% of adults in the U.S. suffered from neck pain or problems. In this article, we examine the various types and common causes of neck pain.

What is neck pain?

Neck pain can range from slight discomfort to severe pain. In some cases, the pain is acute or sudden and intense. This is often due to torticollis or wry neck which may have been a result of trauma to the neck or spine. If neck pain has lasted for more than three months, however, it is known as chronic neck pain.

What are the signs and symptoms of neck pain?

  • A dull ache in the neck area.
  • Pain that worsens when the head is held in one place for long periods (e.g. working at a computer, or driving).
  • Tightness and/or spasms of the neck muscles
  • Pain radiating down the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
  • Pain radiating into the arm, the hand or into the head
  • Headache
  • Decreased ability to move the head
  • In some cases, there is a prickly or tingling sensation in the arms and fingers

What causes neck pain?

Muscle tension and strain

This is typically caused by the activities that you do such as:

  • Spending too many hours working at your desk without changing positions
  • Spending too much time on the phone (usually cradled between your shoulder and ear)
  • Repetitive motions (e.g. turning side to side while dancing or swimming)
  • Jerking your neck while exercising
  • Sleeping in a bad position
  • Having poor posture

Diseases/health conditions

Neck pain can also be caused by diseases/health conditions such as:


Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative joint disease or degenerative arthritis. It affects approximately 27 million Americans, making it the most common chronic condition of the joints. It can affect any joint but it occurs most often in the neck, lower back, knees, and hips. It affects people of all ages but it is most common in people older than 65.

Osteoarthritis can cause the cartilage between your vertebrae to deteriorate. As a result, your body will form bone spurs that will affect the movement of your joints and this will eventually cause pain.


Osteoporosis is a disease wherein the density and quality of the bones are reduced. Since the bones weaken, this leads to small fractures common in hands and knees. However, these small fractures can also occur in the neck area, resulting in neck pain. Osteoporosis affects approximately 75 million people in the USA, Europe, and Japan.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. The joints and bone spurs become painful and inflamed. If the swelling occurs in the neck area, the patient will experience neck pain. Approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. have rheumatoid arthritis.

Herniated disks

The human body has disks that serve as cushions between the vertebrae. These disks help minimize the impact of movement on the spinal cord. A disk is like a jelly doughnut that has a soft center called nucleus pulposus. A disk is herniated if there is an abnormal rupture in the center.

If you have herniated disks or bone spurs in the vertebrae of your neck, these can press on nerves that branch out from your spinal cord. This causes neck pain.


Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder that causes fatigue and muscle pain throughout your body. People who suffer from fibromyalgia have constant headaches, neck pain, pain in the joints and other tender points that often prevent them from sleeping. Fibromyalgia affects approximately 10 million people in the U.S. and around 3 to 6% of the world population.

Heart attack

In some cases, neck pain can be a symptom of a heart attack and often comes with other symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, arm or jaw pain, nausea and vomiting.


Meningitis is a rare infection that inflames the membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and the spinal cord. The swelling leads to headaches, fever, and stiff neck.


The neck is vulnerable to injury from sudden impacts or blows (e.g. in sports), or from a vehicular accident. A common cause of neck pain is whiplash or cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD).

Whiplash occurs when a person’s neck and head are suddenly forced backward and then forward causing the cervical spine to go through opposite motions quickly. This brings extreme stress to the cervical spine and causes neck pain after the incident which lasts for a few days or weeks. This normally happens when a person has been rear-ended in a car accident.

Other rare causes of neck pain are:

  1. Infections
  2. Abscess
  3. Tumors
  4. Cancer of the spine

The anatomy of the neck

The cervical spine includes the spinal cord, 7 vertebrae, small intervertebral discs that absorb shock, joints, 8 nerve roots, 32 muscles, vascular elements, and ligaments. The head is supported by the bones, muscles, and ligaments of the neck. Inflammation, injury, or any abnormalities in this part of your body can cause stiffness or neck pain.

Can neck pain be prevented?

Neck pain may not be easily prevented when it is caused by a medical condition but in most instances, it can be prevented by making some changes in your routine, such as:

Take frequent breaks while working and traveling long distances

At work, stop every now and then. Get up, walk around and stretch your neck and shoulders. If you have to travel long distances, stop the car every few miles or so and move around and stretch.

Practice good posture

Stand up straight. Your shoulders should always be in a straight line over your hips. Do not slouch. Your ears should always be directly over your shoulders. This should also be your posture when sitting down.

Sit properly when working on your computer

Your computer monitor must always be at eye level and your knees should be slightly lower than your hips.

Do not tuck your phone between your ear and shoulder

Use a speakerphone or headset especially if you are on the phone most of the time.

Make sure that you always sleep in a good position

Use a pillow under your neck and your neck and head should align with your body. Avoid sleeping on a bed that’s too soft or too hard.

Stop smoking

Research shows that there is a link between smoking and neck pain.

Avoid carrying heavy shoulder bags

If you carry heavy bags with shoulder straps, these can strain your neck and cause pain.

When should you consult a physical therapist?

You should contact a physical therapist if:

  1. Your neck pain is the result of an injury
  2. The pain in your neck is severe
  3. The pain persists for several days
  4. The pain radiates down your arms or legs
  5. Your neck pain comes with a fever, headache, weakness, nausea, vomiting, tingling, or numbness
  6. You are having trouble swallowing or breathing
  7. You are unable to move your arms or hands
  8. You are unable to touch your chin to your chest

Simple steps were enumerated earlier on how to prevent neck pain. However, consulting a physical therapist (PT) is your best option.

When you consult your PT, try to provide a detailed account of your symptoms. Your PT will assess how well you can move your neck. He or she will check your reflexes, strength, and other potential sources of pain. Your PT will also evaluate joint function in your neck and back in order to identify limitations that may contribute to the pain in your neck.

Let your PT know what over-the-counter medications or supplements you have taken as well as any prescription drugs you have been taking prior to or during the time you experienced neck pain. Tell him or her about any recent injuries or accidents you had no matter how unrelated they may be.

Your PT can use different types of manipulation and exercises to help relieve the stiffness in your neck, strengthen it and restore your neck’s normal function. Some treatments they use prior to exercise are ultrasound, deep tissue massage, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), traction, and cold or hot therapies.

Your physical therapist can also show you the proper way of improving your posture. He or she can help you break bad habits that cause neck pain and teach you healthy practices that will strengthen your neck and vertebrae to prevent neck pain from recurring.

If there is anything we at Vigor Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation can do for you, don’t hesitate to contact us.