Diagnosis of neck pain

Neck pain is a common complaint. Neck muscles can be strained from poor posture — whether it's leaning over your computer or hunching over your work station.

Osteoarthritis also is a common cause of neck pain.

Rarely, neck pain can be a symptom of a more serious problem. Seek medical care if your neck pain is accompanied by numbness or loss of strength in your arms or hands or if you have shooting pain into your shoulder or down your arm.

Possible causes of neck pain

Your neck is flexible and its main function is to support the weight of your head. It can be vulnerable to injuries and conditions that cause pain and restrict motion. 

Neck pain causes may include:

  • Muscle strains. Overuse, such as too many hours hunched over your computer, often triggers muscle strains. Even minor things, such as reading in bed or gritting your teeth, can strain neck muscles.
  • Worn joints. Just like the other joints in your body, your neck joints tend to wear down with age. Osteoarthritis causes the cushions (cartilage) between your bones (vertebrae) to deteriorate. Your body then forms bone spurs that affect joint motion and cause pain.
  • Nerve compression. Herniated disks or bone spurs in the vertebrae of your neck can press on the nerves branching out from the spinal cord.
  • Injuries. Rear-end auto collisions often result in whiplash injury, which occurs when the head is jerked backward and then forward, straining the soft tissues of the neck.
  • Diseases. Certain diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer, can cause neck pain.

Prevention

Most neck pain is associated with poor posture combined with age-related wear and tear. To help prevent neck pain, keep your head centred over your spine. Some simple changes in your daily routine may help.

Consider adopting the following:

  • Use good posture. When standing and sitting, be sure your shoulders are in a straight line over your hips and your ears are directly over your shoulders.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you travel long distances or work long hours at your computer, get up, move around and stretch your neck and shoulders.
  • Adjust your desk, chair and computer so that the monitor is at eye level. Knees should be slightly lower than hips. Use your chair's armrests.
  • Avoid tucking the phone between your ear and shoulder when you talk. Use a headset or speakerphone instead.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking can put you at higher risk of developing neck pain.
  • Avoid carrying heavy bags with straps over your shoulder. The weight can strain your neck.
  • Sleep in a good position. Your head and neck should be aligned with your body. Use a small pillow under your neck. Try sleeping on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows, which will flatten your spinal muscles.

Your doctor will take a medical history and do an examination. He or she will check for tenderness, numbness and muscle weakness, as well as see how far you can move your head forward, backward and side to side.

Imaging tests

Your doctor might order imaging tests to get a better picture of the cause of your neck pain. These may include:

X-rays. X-rays can reveal areas in your neck where your nerves or spinal cord might be pinched by bone spurs or other degenerative changes.

CT scan. CT scans combine X-ray images taken from many different directions to produce detailed cross-sectional views of the internal structures of your neck.

MRI. MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to create detailed images of bones and soft tissues, including the spinal cord and the nerves coming from the spinal cord.

Consultants