Acute Neck Pain – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Acute neck pain is very common and usually nothing to worry about. Tense muscles are often to blame, for instance after working on the computer for a long time, being exposed to a cold draft, or sleeping in an awkward position. But in many cases there’s no clear cause. Acute neck pain usually goes away within about one to two weeks. In some people it comes back again in certain situations, such as after work or intensive sports.

If the symptoms last longer than three months, it’s considered to be chronic neck pain. Psychological stress is frequently a factor if the pain becomes chronic.


Neck pain can be caused by many different things. These include:

  • Weak and overused neck muscles: For instance, sitting at a desk for a long time – particularly in awkward positions with slightly tensed muscles – can cause pain and stiffness in the neck or shoulder areas, and sometimes headaches too. Activities that involve tilting your head back against your neck can also cause muscles problems in the neck area. These include things like painting a ceiling, or certain types of sports such as riding a racing bike or swimming breaststroke with your head in a fixed position.
  • Wear and tear on the cervical spine: Over the course of a lifetime, various normal signs of wear and tear arise in the spine. The spinal disks become flatter, and small bone growths (spurs) may form along the edges of the vertebral bodies (the front part of the bones in the spine). This is called osteochondrosis. Osteoarthritis of the joints between the neck vertebrae is called cervical spondylosis. These changes can make it harder to move your neck, but they rarely cause neck pain on their own.
  • Whiplash: This is an injury that can occur if someone drives into the back of your car in a road accident. The impact of the collision causes the head to rapidly jerk forwards and then back again. This usually causes small injuries in the muscle and connective tissue, painfully tense muscles, and difficulty moving your head for several days. The symptoms typically go away completely after a short time.
  • Narrowing of the vertebral canal, or a slipped disk: If the vertebral canal is too narrow, or if spinal disk tissue bulges or leaks out and puts pressure on a nerve root, it can cause neck pain that radiates (shoots) into your shoulder or arm. A slipped disk may – but doesn’t always – cause symptoms.


There are two basic types of neck pain:

  • Axial pain is mostly felt in the part of the spine that belongs to the neck (cervical spine), and sometimes spreads to the shoulders.
  • Radicular pain shoots (“radiates”) along the nerves – for example, up the back of your head or down into one of your arms. This type of pain is usually caused by irritated nerves – for instance, because one of the spinal disks in the neck area has changed and is pushing against a nerve. That may also affect your arm reflexes and muscle strength or result in a tingling feeling (“pins and needles”).

Neck pain is only very rarely a sign of a more serious condition or an emergency, but urgent medical attention is important if any of the following occur:

  • The symptoms arise after an accident
  • Stiff neck
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Headache together with nausea, vomiting, dizziness or sensitivity to light
  • Pain that stays the same, whether you’re at rest or moving
  • Unexplained weight loss, fever or chills
  • Nerve problems and signs of paralysis such as tingling or difficulties moving your arm or fingers

Other symptoms that require medical attention include persistent “pins and needles,” frequent “falling asleep” of your hands or legs, leg weakness, and trouble keeping your balance when walking.

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