The neck is less protected than the rest of the spine, making it vulnerable to injury. Know the common causes and when you should consult a doctor.

Everyone is familiar with a “crick” in the neck: whenever you try to turn your head, you feel a stabbing pain in the neck and to the back of the shoulder, often accompanied by stiffness and discomfort. This is because muscles in the neck have gone into spasm.

Most of the time the condition is minor and will go away within a few days. But in some cases, pain in the neck indicates a more serious problem that needs attention from a doctor or orthopaedic surgeon (specialising in the musculo-skeletal system).

What causes neck pain?

Strain. The most common cause is strain on the neck muscles, usually from sleeping on a lumpy pillow or over-exertion during activity. Vigorous gardening, competitive sports or sitting in front of the computer for too long can all lead to muscle strain and spasms. A spasm is an uncontrolled, very strong contraction of the muscle. This causes pain because it puts pressure on the nerve endings around the muscles.

Injury. The neck is extremely vulnerable to injury because, although it is flexible and supports the head, it is less protected than the rest of the spine. Motor vehicle accidents, contact sports and falls can all result in neck injury. In a vehicle collision the neck might be extended beyond its normal limits, causing injury. Most common injuries are to the soft tissues – the muscles and ligaments. Severe injury with fracture or dislocation of the neck may damage the spinal cord and cause paralysis.

Degenerative diseases. There are a number of degenerative diseases that can cause neck pain. Osteoarthritis usually occurs in older people and involves the gradual wearing down of the joints between the neck vertebrae. Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause destruction of the joints in the neck. Cervical disc disease (of the spinal discs in the neck) also causes neck pain. Discs between the vertebrae in the neck act as shock absorbers. In cervical disc degeneration, the discs degenerate and the spaces between the vertebrae narrow. As the disc space narrows, added stress is applied to the joints, causing pain.

Influenza. Neck pain can occur with the ’flu and is accompanied by fever, muscle aches and a headache.

German measles, glandular fever, meningitis and in rare cases, cancerous tumours. These can also be accompanied by neck pain or stiffness, and other symptoms, such as fever, may be present.

Who gets neck pain?

Everybody from the very young to the very old can experience neck pain. High-risk groups are those who play contact sports or people involved in activities requiring physical athletic stress. Neck pain caused by degenerative diseases is experienced mostly by those over 40 years old.

Symptoms of neck pain

The major symptoms are pain, stiffness or discomfort that can be felt on one or more sides of the neck. In some cases this pain travels down one or both arms. In more serious conditions neck pain may be accompanied by weakness, numbness or tingling down the arm or leg.

Consult your doctor if:

    • Neck pain does not lessen within a week.

    • The pain is severe.

    • The pain is associated with fever and headache, or the neck is so stiff the chin cannot touch the chest.

    • The pain travels down one or both arms, or there is a numbness or tingling in the arms.

    • There are painful or swollen glands in the neck.

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