Neck Pain: Causes, Diagnosis, and Effective Treatments

How is Neck Pain Diagnosed?

In most cases, a medical history and a physical examination are sufficient for a healthcare provider to diagnose the cause of neck pain. Your doctor or surgery will first check for any serious concerns, such as infection, pressure on the spinal cord, myelopathy, or cancer.

Medical History

Your GP will ask you about any past neck injuries that may have caused a herniated disc or whiplash. They may also ask about your job or any other activities that could strain the neck. After that, they will gather information about the pain itself, including when it started, its location, duration, and intensity.

Physical Examination

The alignment of the head and neck will be checked by your doctor.  They will observe the range of motion when the neck is moved. They will feel the neck and supporting muscles to check for tenderness and signs of strain.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are usually unnecessary for identifying the cause of neck pain. However, the provider may take images of the inside of the neck if they suspect a serious injury or if the patient is experiencing severe pain that does not improve.


X-rays can reveal problems with the bones or soft tissues that may be causing neck pain. They can show issues with cervical alignment, fractures, slipped discs, and detect arthritis.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

An MRI scan will highlight any problems with the spinal cord, soft tissue, nerves and bone marrow. It can identify if a disc has slipped out of place, signs of infection, and masses like cysts or tumours that may be causing neck pain.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scan

A CT scan may be used if an MRI is not available. It can show bone spurs and signs of bone deterioration.

In rare instances, the provider may order additional tests, including:

  • Electrodiagnostic Tests: The function of nerves and muscle response is checked. Tests include nerve conduction studies and, rarely, a myelogram if an MRI is contraindicated.
  • Laboratory Tests: These tests can help your doctor to identify causes of neck pain, aside from musculoskeletal injuries, such as infections, rheumatological conditions, or cancers. Tests might include urinalysis, a complete blood count (CBC), and markers of inflammation, among others.

How is Neck Pain Treated and Managed?

Neck pain treatment aims to relieve the discomfort and to improve movement in the neck. In the majority of cases, neck pain will reduce with time and can be sorted out at home. Your surgery or doctor will suggest treatments to manage symptoms and pain, including:

  • Pain Medications and Muscle Relaxants: Medicines, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease neck pain and inflammation, and muscle relaxants to aid the neck muscle healing process, are common initial treatments for neck pain.
  • Physical Therapy: The patient may work with a physical therapist or a fitness trainer to learn exercises and movements that strengthen the muscles and tendons in the neck and improve flexibility.
  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) Unit: Invest in a TENS machine. A TENS unit applies a low-level electrical current to the skin near the nerves to disrupt the pain signal causing discomfort. It is essential to check with a healthcare provider before using a TENS unit. We recommend the Kinetik Wellbeing Dual Channel TENS Machine
  • Steroid Injections: A jab in the region of the nerve roots can lower inflammation and relieve pain.
  • Alternative Therapies: Your GP may suggest acupuncture to relieve pain or massage and to help free up your tightened muscles contributing to discomfort. You might also see a chiropractor or osteopath to align the spine.
  • Surgery: The majority of causes of neck pain do not require an operation or surgery. However, surgery may be necessary if one or more of the vertebrae in the spine has shifted out of place or is putting pressure on the nerves.

If the pain is severe, the patient may need to work with a spine or pain specialist.

What Can I Do to Relieve Neck Pain at Home?

In addition to taking pain relief medications, there are steps that can be taken at home to relieve neck pain, including:

  • Heat Therapy: Jump into really hot shower or place a warm towel or heating pad on the area of the pain for 20 minutes every couple of hours. The heat loosens the muscles and promotes blood flow and will help the problem. Try Heat Relief Pads as they are quick and easy to use.
  • Cold Therapy: Place a cold pack or a bag of frozen vegetables (wrapped in a thin towel to protect the skin) for 20 minutes every 2-3 hours. The cold narrows the blood vessels, reducing inflammation and swelling. Use cold instead of heat straight after an injury. A Deep Freeze Pain Relief Cold Patch works well.
  • Exercise: Follow the doctor’s advice on neck exercises that can be tried to relieve neck pain and improve the range of motion. Do not try any exercises if there is a serious neck injury or a pinched nerve.
  • Stress Reduction Techniques: Yoga, pilates, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness can all help relieve tension in the body that may contribute to neck pain.
  • Quit Smoking and Vaping: Smoking destroys bone structure. It also speeds up degenerative disc disease, and slows healing. So cut out the fags or vapes!

How Long Does Neck Pain Take to Get Better?

How long it takes for your neck to heal really depends on what is causing the neck pain. Neck pain which is a result of by common issues like stress and strains strains usually improves within a week or two. However, it may take a few months before the pain disappears entirely.

How Can I Prevent Neck Pain?

Steps can be taken to prevent neck pain related to strains and tense muscles:

  • Practise Good Posture: Position electronic devices, like laptops, iPads and phones, so there is no need to slouch or strain the neck when using them. Keep the shoulders aligned and the back straight when seated to avoid straining the neck. Adjust the seats in the car to maintain good posture while travelling.
  • Adjust Sleep Position: Make sure you have a good posture when sleeping. If you prefer sleeping on the back or side, use a pillow to support the head so that the head and neck are aligned with the rest of the body. If you sleep on your back, place a pillow underneath the knees to take additional pressure off the low back. Avoid sleeping on the stomach with the head turned.
  • Stay Active: To prevent neck pain, you can employ many of the same exercises that are used to relieve it. If you work from home in front of a computer, take planned breaks to walk around and stretch the entire body. Don’t forget to include the neck muscles.
  • Do Not Carry Heavy Weight on the Shoulders: Avoid lugging heavy objects like book bags or suitcases over the shoulder. Instead, swap over to luggage or bags with wheels.
  • Exercise the Upper Back Extensor Muscles: It is normal to lose strength in the upper back as you get older. As a result, the shoulders can rock forward, and the head can tip forward in a position in front of the spine. This positioning puts additional strain on the neck and upper back.

Exercises that can help strengthen the upper back extensor muscles include:

  • Scapular Squeezes: This can be done sitting down. Pinch the shoulder blades together 10 times.
  • Wall Push-ups: Standing up,  do push-ups in a door frame, allowing the shoulders to go past the hands 10 times.
  • Resistance Band Rowing: Wrap the middle of a theraband around a door knob so it is stable. While standing, grab an end with each hand. Pull the hands towards the waist 10 times.

By following these guidelines and seeking prompt medical attention for any severe or persistent neck pain, individuals can effectively manage and prevent this common condition.

Photo “Neck Pain” by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

Zoom Health is a leading UK supplier of Home Health Tests and Earplugs

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