Common Causes of Neck Pain

causes of neck pain

Take a look around the room you’re in. Rotate your face both ways, as much as you can. If turning your head causes minor neck pain, you’re probably spending too much time in front of the screen.

In fact, you are probably reading this article on a device that’s partially responsible for that strain in your neck. Our necks contain some of the most overlooked muscles in our body. Fitness freaks go on about leg day and chest day, but there’s no love for neck days! Apart from our lifestyles being a literal and constant pain in our necks, there are other possible reasons why you could be experiencing neck pain.

Understanding Neck Pain

The medical term for neck pain is cervicalgia. A variety of reasons can bring it on. Some people experience neck pain lasting from hours to a few weeks. Others live with chronic neck pain that can last for months. Both are highly unpleasant to live with. When we understand what are the most common causes of neck pain, we can take better care of our neck muscles and prevent neck pain.

What Causes Neck Pain and Neck Stiffness?

Neck pain and stiffness can usually be attributed to one of three reasons:

  • Sore muscles or tense muscles
  • Spinal column problems
  • Unnatural growths such as tumors and cysts

To better learn how neck pains are caused, we need to examine the hardware first. The part of the spine that makes up the neck is known as the cervical spine. The vertebrae are separated by soft disks known as cervical discs. 

The trunk of your neck is supported by muscles that bear the weight of your skull. When those muscles are strained, or disks are displaced, it can lead to neck pain. This causes both axial pains (which are limited to the neck) and radicular pains (which spread to other areas, like the shoulders and arms).

Unnatural growths, like tumors, cysts, or bone spurs, can also cause neck pains by compressing nerves or hampering skeletal mobility. 

The Chiropractic Perspective on Neck Pain

Woodstock IL Chiropractor Dr. Christopher Allin, D.C., notes that most cases of neck pain are caused by postural distortion. When our workspaces aren’t ergonomically designed, we’re putting our muscles in a fight against gravity. Our head moves forward ahead of the spine as we sit at our desks, making our neck muscles chronically loaded. They remain contracted without shortening, leading to painful trigger points and adhesions in our cervical region. 

Bad posture can also cause us to lose mobility in the neck, leading to neck stiffness. Another side effect is disc bulges. The spinal discs between vertebrae migrate backward and come into contact with the nerves in the spinal cord, causing pain or tingling sensations. 

Woman being assessed for neck pain
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

The Most Common Causes of Neck Pain

Neck pain is a pervasive problem. Most adults will experience some form of neck pain in their lifetimes. A 2010 study conducted in North Carolina estimated that neck pain affected 30% to 50% of adults in the general population in any given year. 

Why is neck pain so common? That’s because it can be brought about by a number of factors, such as:

1. Injuries

This one is self-explanatory. Experiencing physical trauma, like a car accident or sudden fall, can easily cause a neck injury. The severity of neck injuries can range from a slight sprain to pinched nerve to broken bones. Regardless, people suffering neck injuries should be examined by a physician to clear them of any possible long-term complications.

2. Aging

Another unavoidable cause of neck pain is simply growing old. As we age, our bodies deteriorate. People of a particular vintage know that neck pain is just another reminder that they aren’t as young as they used to be. Several health conditions accompany old age, and neck pains are a symptom of many of them.

3. Stress

We all know that stress can cause headaches and ulcers. But did you know stress can also contribute to neck pain? When we are stressed, we tend to clench our muscles subconsciously. This clenching can put an unnatural muscle strain on your neck muscles, leading to pain. After all, there is a reason we call something stressful a “pain in the neck.”

4. Poor Posture

Neck pain can also be self-inflicted. You could be responsible for your own neck pain without even realizing it. Poor posture for long periods combined with long working hours is a recipe for neck pains.

As we spend most of our time in front of a screen or working from a desk, we tend to slump forward. This transfers most of our skull’s weight to the neck muscles and cervical spine, which aren’t designed to bear the load for an extended period. This kind of pain can be felt immediately in the aftermath of a long working day, and can result in long-term complications and chronic neck pain if you don’t correct your posture.

The Best Way to Sit At Your Desk (And Stay Out of Pain)

Back, neck and shoulder pain caused by sitting at a desk is an incredibly common cause of stress and fatigue among working Americans. If you work in an office and spend your day sitting on a chair behind a desk, then you absolutely know how it feels!

proper sitting posture

5. Sleeping Position

Another self-inflicted cause of neck pain is your sleeping position. Anyone who’s woken up with a stiff neck can testify how sleeping in the wrong position can do a number on your neck. To avoid waking up with neck pain, ensure you have the correct number of pillows. Your head and neck need ample support and should not be extended at an odd angle. 

Read: The BEST Sleeping Position (From a Chiropractor’s Perspective)

6. Musculoskeletal Ailments

Whether age-related, congenital, or otherwise, there are many health conditions that can cause neck pains. Treating these conditions requires a combination of medicine, painkillers, and physical therapy. The musculoskeletal disorders most commonly associated with neck pain will be examined in further detail below.

7. Other Symptoms and Health Conditions

Apart from musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain can also be caused by other underlying health conditions. These can sometimes be severe ailments, which is why neck pain should not be taken lightly. If you have neck pain persisting for weeks and months, you should get a physical exam to see what might be behind it.

Health Conditions Associated With Neck Pain

  • Osteoarthritis: This can cause neck pains by increasing friction in the neck’s facet joints. It also leads to the development of bone spurs, which cause headaches and nerve root pains. 
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: This causes inflammation in the connective tissue between vertebrae, causing throbbing pain and difficulty in moving your head from side to side.
  • Osteoporosis: This causes weak bones, which could lead to hairline fractures. Neck injuries due to osteoporosis are not as common, but they do happen.
  • Degenerative Disc Disease: Over time, the discs between vertebrae become worn out. When this happens, it can lead to chronic pain.
  • Herniated Discs: This leads to some of the worst neck pains and is caused when a disc is pushed out of place or contorted, leading to inflammation around the muscles and nerve roots.
  • Foraminal Stenosis: Occurs when the space where nerve roots exit the vertebrae is narrowed or compressed, leading to numbness or pain depending on the action of the nerve.
  • Myelopathy: Extreme cases of stenosis can lead to myelopathy, which is characterized by a loss of fine motor function, weakness, and sharp pain.
  • Spondylosis: This is the medical term to describe degeneration and herniation of the spinal discs. Cervical spondylosis, which is localized in the neck region, can cause severe pain. 
  • Cervical Radiculopathy: This involves a pinched nerve in the neck region. Cervical radiculopathy can be caused by stenosis or osteoarthritis and can lead to severe neck pain.
  • Fibromyalgia: It causes muscle pain throughout the body. Fibromyalgia can also flare up in the neck region, leading to muscle spasms and neck pains.
Close up photo of a woman pressing her neck on a stress ball
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Treating Neck Pain (and How to Prevent Neck Pain)

Both acute and chronic neck pain can severely hamper your quality of life. Fortunately, unless it is caused by underlying conditions like meningitis or cancer, neck pain can be soothed with conservative care. Chiropractic care has been proven to relieve pain and relieve tension for patients with cervicalgia. A study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine showed that cervical manipulation for neck pain achieved results with no serious adverse reactions observed in patients. 

Some chiropractic treatments for cervical pain include:

  • Manual spinal manipulation
  • Instrument-assisted manipulation
  • Flexion-distraction techniques
  • Therapeutic massage

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common causes of neck pain?

Neck pain is a widespread issue affecting most of the general population. It is usually caused by poor posture, incorrect sleeping positions, or injuries. Other causes of neck pain include age-related disorders, musculoskeletal ailments, and underlying conditions like cancer or meningitis. 

How do you know if neck pain is serious?

Serious neck pain is usually severe pain. Another sign of serious neck pain is if it persists for weeks on end. Any neck pain that flares up after a fall or an accident should be treated as a serious injury and given medical attention. Ignoring serious neck pains could have long-term consequences and be detrimental to your overall quality of life.

What are the red flags for neck pain?

Some of the biggest red flags for neck pain are if it is accompanied by weakness, dizziness, or nausea. Another cause for concern is if the neck pain spreads to other parts of the body, like the head, arms, or legs. If you can detect a lump in your neck that causes you pain, it might be a sign of cancer.

If your neck pain is accompanied by any of these symptoms, you need to seek a doctor’s help at the earliest. 

Why does my neck hurt on one side?

When the neck hurts down only one side of your neck, it is usually nothing serious. It is most commonly caused by a poor sleeping position or bad posture. This kind of neck pain usually subsides within a few hours or days. Treatment for this kind of neck pain involves home remedies, such as applying ice or heat, taking over-the-counter painkillers, maintaining a good posture and performing gentle stretches. 

However, in the rare cases where neck pain on one side does not go away, it might indicate a more significant problem, and require a professional to get the neck pain diagnosed.

Video Transcription

Hey, it’s Dr. Allin, D.C. here Evolve Chiropractic in Woodstock. I wanted to go over some of the most common causes of neck pain. Now, neck pain is probably the second most leading cause of people coming into my office for chronic pain patterns. Now there’s a few things you got to look at when you’re thinking of neck pain, where is the neck pain coming from?

And why is it there? Mainly what happens with chronic neck pain patterns is a postural distortion. So say people are sitting at desks all day long. A lot of people are working from home now these days and what ends up happening is if the ergonomic, you know, the ergonomic set up of your work space is not very good.

We end up bringing the head way out in front of the spine. So when that happens, the muscles that run along the back side of the neck, they try to pull the head back in space, but gravity usually wins that fight. So what ends up happening is that the muscles in the back of the neck become chronically loaded?

So basically, what they’re doing is they’re chronically contracting and firing all day long without actually shortening. So what ends up happening there is that they develop what are called trigger points or adhesions in a muscle which prevent the muscles from contracting and relaxing like they’re supposed to.

What also can happen is that these small joints in the back of the neck, they can become restricted or locked in place. So we actually lose mobility in the neck joints whenever we have a lack of range of motion, that’s what will create a lot of the stiffness. But again, the body is not going to be able to return back to its normal position with the curve in the neck and we get stuck in these positions here.

And now those muscles again are going to start firing when you get up out of your chair, they’re trying to pull the head back in space, but the neck is stuck and locked into a certain position and it just creates a lot of different problems. So the other cause of neck pain would be disc bulges or disc herniations.

Disc bulges will happen when the lower part of the neck, typically like c 56 and seven. They have a lot of stress put on the front part of the spine. Again, typically, that happens with flexion based postures where the head is forward in space, we end up loading these discs and they get a lot of pressure into them and eventually what will happen is that disc can migrate backwards and start to touch on these little bitty nerve roots that exit out the spine.

Now, that can actually create numbness, tingling, sharp shooting pains down the arms, which is not a great sensation to have. Good news is that chiropractic care,  80% of patients with disc bulges actually found relief when seeking chiropractic care for spinal manipulation. So if you have a disc bulge or if you have arthritic changes in your neck, or if you have muscle spasms due to chronic postures, there is hope for you.

So if you haven’t been checked out by a chiropractor, I highly recommend doing that if you have neck pain because it’s highly effective, it helps tons of people every day. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out here at the office, I’ll be glad to help you out.

Be safe, have fun, get at it and we’ll see you soon.

{Note: This content is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your healthcare provider or seek other professional medical treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something that have read on this blog or in any linked materials.}
The Evolve Chiropractic Team

The Evolve Chiropractic Team

We're a team of experts in the field of chiropractic treatment and we're dedicated to fostering incredible levels of health and well-being. What do you want from your Chiropractor?

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About Evolve Chiropractic

Evolve Chiropractic is leading the way for modern, evidence-based chiropractic care.  With 17 locations through Chicagoland and Northern Illinois, we have become the go-to solution for headache relief, neck & back pain and overall spinal health.

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