Neck pain: symptoms and causes

Read our guide to easing neck pain and getting your neck muscles back to normal.



What causes neck pain?

Most of the time the cause of your neck pain may be something simple, such as muscle strain. Neck pain is a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). This term also covers back pain and repetitive strain injury. Often, the cause isn’t clear – in these cases it’s known as ‘nonspecific neck pain.’ 

It’s possible that you may have cervical spondylosis, a condition that comes with age and is the result of many years of use. It means that the discs between your neck vertebrae have become worn, and you have smaller spaces between your vertebrae. The effect on your body is similar to osteoarthritis. Painkillers, and gentle exercise to build up your muscles should help.

What are the symptoms of neck pain?

The most common symptoms are stiffness and pain. It can hurt to move your neck, so you may find you have to stand up and turn your whole body to look at something to either side or behind you. 

Your neck muscles may feel very tight, so that any kind of turning or up and down motion may hurt. Neck pain can spread outwards, to your shoulders, and even to your upper chest area. 

If your pain is moderate, responds to painkillers and gentle movement, and wasn’t caused by a fall or accident, you can often ease neck pain yourself. 

How to avoid persistent neck pain

When we hurt, we instinctively avoid doing anything that makes the pain worse – like moving the painful part. If your neck pain doesn’t clear up quickly, you may carry on avoiding moving normally, to avoid causing discomfort. 

However, by doing this you may make the problems worse. Not using your neck muscles can make them become weaker, and not as strong as they need to be to do their job. This means they are more likely to be put under more strain. This can cause a pain cycle that carries on becoming worse. To avoid this it’s important to tackle the pain, and keep gently moving your neck, and keeping your neck muscles in shape.

How to treat neck pain

Painkillers

Over the counter pain killers, for instance, paracetamol and ibuprofen, can help with the pain, and may prevent your neck from becoming more painful by allowing you to relax your neck muscles. 

Don’t take paracetamol more than every four hours, and don’t take them at that dose for too long. Overdosing on paracetamol can be dangerous, so keep to the instructions on the packet. 

Don’t take them more than every four hours, and don’t take more than the specified dose – 4g - every 24 hours. Check that you aren’t taking any other medication that includes paracetamol. 

Ibuprofen can also help relieve neck pain. Again, follow the instructions on the packet, and don’t take more than the specified dose – a maximum of 2.4g a day. It’s best not to take them for more than a week. Again, check that your other medications don’t contain ibuprofen. If in doubt, check with your pharmacist or GP.

Exercise

When your neck begins to feel a little less painful, start some gentle exercises. These should ease the stiffness in your neck, strengthen your muscles, and allow you to turn your head as you would normally. Start slowly and gently, and build up carefully. 

Try standing or sitting with your head facing forward. Tip your head down gently, hold for five seconds, and then raise it back to the original position. Repeat five times.  You can find more neck exercises on the Arthritis Research UK website

www.arthritisresearchuk.org

Warmth

Holding a wheat or lavender-filled neck warmer (heated in your microwave), to your neck can help, as can other sources of warmth. Make sure they aren’t so hot that they’re painful.

Massage

Gently massaging your neck can help. You can do this using oils or liniments, but check with your pharmacist that they don’t contain ingredients that could be harmful or react with medicines you’re taking.

Posture

How you hold yourself can contribute to neck pain. Think about your sitting position, both at home and in the car. Do you have lower back support? This can make the difference between good and bad posture. Think about swapping a soft chair for a firmer one.

Try not to stay in the same position for too long. If you’re watching TV, get up and walk around occasionally. If you’re driving stop your car occasionally, and get out and stretch. 

Sleeping

It’s best to use just one, low, pillow in bed, so your head isn’t at an uncomfortable angle. Your head and neck shouldn’t be too high; your pillow should be just supportive enough to hold your head level with your body.

Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy can be helpful when you have neck pain.You can make an appointment to see a physiotherapist privately, or your GP may refer you to one through the NHS. As part of the treatment they will usually give you exercises to do at home. 

Should I see my GP about neck pain?

Usually neck pain clears up within a few days to a couple of weeks. Following our advice should help relieve the pain, and have you feeling back to normal before long.

If your neck pain doesn’t improve after two weeks, you feel numbness or tingling in your arms and normal strength over the counter painkillers and other pain relieving methods aren’t helping, you should see your doctor. 

Your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist or prescribe stronger painkillers. In some cases, neck pain can be the result of more serious conditions, such as polymyalgia rheumatica, which needs expert attention. Symptoms to watch out for include serious pain in both your shoulders, and in your hips and thighs. You may also feel generally unwell and feel as if you have a high temperature.

Could neck pain be something more serious?

Polymyalgia rheumatica is a condition that causes pain in muscles. It commonly affects muscles in your shoulders and thighs, but can cause pain in any muscles. It can start once you reach 50, but it is more common one you’re over 60, and is also more common in women.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.