What is Neck Pain?

What is Neck Pain?

Neck pain is a common symptom that can be felt in the neck bones, ligaments, or muscles. Many conditions or injuries can cause neck pain, including poor posture, mental stress, strained muscles, or something more serious such as an injury or medical condition.

Types of Neck Pain


There are two different types of neck pain:

  • Acute neck pain. Acute neck pain is typically short-lived and starts with an injury, sleeping poorly, or pulled neck muscle. It may start in other body parts or move to the arms, back, and shoulders. The pain typically goes away in a day or two and may come and go. It may also get worse with sudden movements. 
  • Chronic neck pain. Chronic neck pain lasts long and is typically felt in the neck and shoulders. Ongoing neck and shoulder pain that lasts more than 3 to 4 weeks is possibly due to an underlying injury or condition.

Signs & Symptoms of Neck Pain


Neck discomfort can make sitting up, turning your head, or going about your day difficult. Our neck pain specialists can help by treating the symptoms of neck pain, which may include:

  • Stiffness and spasm
  • Less range of motion, making it difficult to turn your head comfortably
  • Pulled or strained muscles in the neck (neck strain) or shoulders (shoulder strain)
  • Compressed nerves in the upper back or neck that radiate down your arms
  • Neck or back injuries
  • Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, meningitis, or cancer

Other neck pain symptoms include cervical radiculopathy, including nerve pain in the neck area and often radiating or “referred pain,” which travels down into the shoulders and arms; numbness or tingling in the arms; and sometimes weakness in the hands or arms. Cervicogenic headaches can also cause stiffness, pain on one side of the back of the head, scalp, face or around the eyes, or blurred vision in one eye.

What Causes Neck Pain?


There are many causes of neck pain. Some of the most common are:

  • Arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis of the facet joints
  • Cancers can cause neck pain, including head, neck, lung, and thyroid cancer
  • Muscle strain from carrying heavyweight, muscle overuse, chronic stress, repetitive movements, and holding your head in an incorrect position cause discomfort
  • Injuries such as a sports injury, fall, or car accident
  • Nerve compression or “pinched nerves” from a herniation, or bulging of the discs in the cervical spine or spinal stenosis
  • Bone spurs, the extra bone that forms over time, can press on spinal nerves and cause pain
  • Diseases such as meningitis
  • Headaches such as tension headaches (cervicogenic headaches) can cause neck pain and dysfunction

Common Illnesses and Injuries Affecting the Neck

Risk Factors

Examples of common illnesses and injuries that may cause you to experience neck pain include:



Whether neck pain is acute or chronic, it can cause complications in everyday life if untreated. The most common complications experienced include:

  • Inability to perform normal daily tasks
  • Inability to exercise
  • Depression
  • Lack of sleep
  • Loss of productivity
  • Weight gain

How to Prevent Neck Pain


While certain neck problems, such as deformities in the spine, cannot be prevented, there are steps you can take to reduce your chance of developing common neck discomfort.

  • Maintain good posture by consciously aligning your head and your neck and standing up as straight as possible
  • Move frequently, especially if you sit for long periods or work in front of a computer for much of the workday
  • Set up a spine-friendly workspace, with the top of your computer monitor at eye level and your knees slightly lower than your hips when sitting
  • Choose the best sleep position and pillow to achieve the most neck comfort
  • Prevent tension by periodically stretching your neck and turning your head from side to side throughout the day, and consider practices such as meditation and breathing to reduce stress
  • Avoid smoking, which causes damage to the blood vessels and can increase the risk of degenerative diseases of the spine
  • Distribute weight across both shoulders rather than carrying a bag on one shoulder, especially if the bag is heavy

When to See a Doctor for Neck Pain

When to See a Doctor

If your neck discomfort doesn't go away, gets worse, or limits your daily activities, it may be time to see a doctor. You should see a physician if you are experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Numbness, weakness, or tingling in the hands or arms
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Neck pain that feels worse at night
  • Severe pain after an injury
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Neck Pain Care

If you are experiencing neck pain that limits your daily activities or doesn’t go away, our neck pain specialists provide treatment to help eliminate symptoms of pain and discomfort.