Neck Pain

Neck pain is a common medical complaint, with a vast number of complex causes and symptoms. The onset of neck pain can often be due to subtle causes, such as poor posture or a sore throat. Symptoms can also be caused by abrupt trauma, such as a whiplash injury sustained in a road traffic accident or a serious underlying problem, such as infection or osteoarthritis. This page briefly outlines a high-level anatomy of the neck and some of the symptoms and causes of neck pain.

Neck Structure

The term ‘cervical pain’ is used to define pain in the spinal structure of the neck, which is divided into seven cervical vertebrae that surround the spinal cord – there are discs in between each vertebra. The neck also comprises of skin, neck muscles and arteries, veins, lymph nodes, as well as areas including the thyroid gland, parathyroid glands, esophagus, larynx and trachea. Any disease or condition affecting these numerous areas can create neck pain.

Neck Pain Causes

Neck pain can develop in a variety of forms. It can often begin with a dull aching and pain on movement of the neck or turning of the head. Other common signs include numbness, tingling and tenderness in the area. Sharp shooting pain, difficulty swallowing, pulsation, dizziness or lightheadedness are also further indicators. Secondary symptoms to neck pain may be headaches, facial pain, shoulder pain and arm numbness or tingling.

Furthermore, if a nerve root has been damaged pain may radiate distally – away from the point of origin – along that root. This is called radicular pain. If the spinal cord is affected, strength, sensation and reflexes may be weakened at the affected spinal cord level and all levels below –  this is known as a ‘segmental neurologic deficit’.

Most spinal complaints are mechanical. Common mechanical spinal disorders effecting the neck are neck muscle strains, ligament sprains (often caused by whiplash) and spasms. About 15% of mechanical neck disorders involve degenerative disc disease, disc herniation, compression fractures or pinched nerves.

Only a few involve non-mechanical disorders, including infection, inflammation or cancer. Common infections can create neck pain. For example, a viral infection of the throat can lead to lymph node swelling. Rarer infections, such as tuberculosis, osteomyelitis and meningitis, can also contribute to neck pain.

Polymyalgia rheumatica is an inflammatory disorder that can induce muscle pain and stiffness in the neck. Fibromyalgia, a complex pain disorder that causes widespread pain and tenderness to touch, is also a common cause of neck pain, and can be additional to a chronic primary spinal disorder – see also