Like a particularly challenging person or task, neck pain can put a real damper on your day. From turning your head to nodding "yes" or simply sitting up straight, everything can suddenly be painful — and you'll be waiting for the moment the pain goes away.
"With chronic neck pain, though, the pain doesn't subside. Chronic pain is when pain lasts for more than a few months," says Michael R. Murray, MD, an orthopaedic spine spine surgeon at Main Line Health. "This means that instead of dealing with pain for just a few days, you're impacted by neck pain for months or even years."
Chronic neck pain isn't just painful and frustrating — it can be signaling an underlying issue. Here's why chronic neck pain should never be ignored and when to see your healthcare provider.
What is chronic neck pain?
Neck pain is exactly what it sounds like — pain in your neck. Sometimes, you can also experience pain shooting down one or both of your arms.
"Neck pain is common, with about 30% of the general population experiencing neck pain at least once a year. And while women and people who are older may be more likely to have neck pain, anyone at any age can develop it," says Dr. Murray.
Possible causes of chronic neck pain
There are several causes of neck pain. While temporary pain might be from something like sleeping the wrong way, chronic neck pain can have other causes.
Most neck pain is caused by wearing out the neck structures, either due to aging or overuse.
Causes of chronic neck pain include:
- Osteoarthritis, which is when the cartilage (a rubbery material on the ends of bones in joints) wears down. With less cartilage, there's more friction, which can cause neck pain.
- Disc degeneration, which is when the discs — which sit between the vertebrae on the spine — wear down. This can lead to pain and stiffness in the back and neck.
- Spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal (a space in the vertebral column that protects the nerves and spinal cord).
- Systemic illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis, tumors and infections.
- Lifestyle factors, such as sitting in front of a computer screen for many hours a day (sometimes called tech neck).
When to see your healthcare provider for neck pain
"While temporary neck pain isn't normally a cause for concern, pain that persists may be. If your neck pain doesn't go away after about a week or doesn't get better with over-the-counter pain medications, it's time to see your healthcare provider," says Dr. Murray.
Other reasons to see your healthcare provider for neck pain include if you:
- Have pain that starts after an injury, such as a blow to the head.
- Have a fever or headache.
- Can't touch your chin to your chest due to a stiff neck.
- Have pain shooting down one arm.
- Experience weakness, tingling or numbness in your arms or hands.
- Have leg weakness or trouble coordinating your arms or legs.
Ignoring chronic pain won't just make it difficult to go about your daily routine, but it can also worsen the problem over time and keep you from treating the root cause of the pain.
Diagnosing and treating chronic neck pain
Finding the cause of your neck pain starts with a physical examination and review of your symptoms and medical history. You may also undergo testing, such as an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT) scan.
Treating neck pain often starts with medication and/or physical therapy. Depending on the cause of your neck pain, you may also benefit from other treatments, such as:
- Limiting physical activities
- Massage therapy
- Epidural steroids
In rare cases, surgery may be needed to relieve chronic neck pain.
Addressing chronic neck pain before it becomes worse
As with other kinds of pain, ignoring chronic neck pain can cause pain to linger or get worse. This can take a serious toll on your physical and mental health.
Getting to the root cause of your neck pain and addressing it in the right way will help relieve pain, prevent further problems and get you back to your daily routine.