Neck pain

Neck pain is very common; two out of three people will get it at some time in their life. It is important to remember although neck pain can be very painful it is rarely serious. Also, neck pain will normally resolve without any treatment for most people within 6-12 weeks.


Common causes

A number of factors have been associated with neck pain. These include:

  • A sprain/strain or injury such as a road traffic collision.
  • Sleeping in an awkward position.
  • Sitting for long periods without changing your position.
  • A sudden increase or decrease in your normal activity or exercise levels.
  • Other conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia.
  • Following a period of increased stress, worry or low mood.
  • Following a period of poor sleep, fatigue or feeling run down.
  • Other lifestyle factors such as being overweight and smoking.
  • A flare up of longstanding neck pain.


Common symptoms

These include:

  • Pain in your neck which may travel into the upper part of your back and/or arm.
  • Stiffness after a period of rest or reduced movement e.g., turning your head, or looking up or down.
  • Increased muscle tension and or headaches.

You may experience constant or intermittent (comes and goes) symptoms that are aggravated by certain activities and reduced by others.


What can I do to help it?

  • In the first few days after an onset of neck pain changing or reducing your usual activities may help. However, there is strong evidence that keeping active and gradually returning to all your usual activities and exercise will help you recover.
  • It is normal to experience some pain during your recovery, but it does not mean you are causing any harm or damaging your neck.
  • Try to stay at work or return as soon as you are able. Your employer, GP or health practitioner will be able to advise on how to return to your normal work duties.

Try some of these self-help tips to aid your recovery:

  • Apply a heat or icepack to the painful area – for up to 15 minutes. Never apply heat or ice directly to the skin.
  • A short course of simple pain medication as advised by your pharmacist or GP may help reduce pain and allow you to move more comfortably.
  • Keep moving. Regular movement and exercise is safe and helpful for neck pain. It is important to build up gradually – the exercise or activity you enjoy most, is likely to help your recovery.
  • If sitting causes pain and your job involves long periods of sitting, adopting varied and relaxed postures may be helpful.
  • Good sleep habits and managing stress may help you cope better with your pain.


Facts about Neck pain

  • The neck and surrounding joints, muscles and ligaments are very strong.
  • Neck pain is rarely linked to serious tissue damage or a life-threatening condition.
  • X-rays and scans often DO NOT show the cause of your pain.
  • Creaking or clicking sounds are common in the neck and are RARELY a sign of harm or damage.
  • Necks DO NOT go ‘out of place’.
  • Your neck can become stronger and healthier with regular movement and exercise.
  • There is NO perfect posture, slouching will NOT damage your neck.
  • Improving your sleep and general health is all also important for your neck pain.
  • Treatments such as surgery, injections and strong medications are NOT very effective in the long term and often have negative side effects.
  • Your neck pain can often improve with the right management. So even if you have had it a long time regardless of your age, DO NOT give up and get a good plan that you can stick to.


When should I seek medical advice?

Call your GP surgery if

  • Your pain is getting worse.
  • You have tried the self-help tips for 3-4 weeks and your symptoms have not improved.

When to seek immediate medical advice if

  • You have neck pain following
    • a significant road traffic collision (> 60 mph) or a fall from a height
  • You have neck pain and or pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in your arms.
  • You have neck pain with new or severe headaches, tingling, numbness or weakness in your face, changes in your vision or any drooping of your eyelid.
  • You have an unexplained change in:
    • your arm/hand function e.g., ‘clumsy hands’
    • your walking pattern due to unexplained weakness in one or both legs
    • disturbances in bladder or bowel function
    • disturbances in sexual function
  • You feel unwell with your neck pain and have a fever or significant sweating that is keeping you awake at night.
  • You feel unwell with your neck pain and have a loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
  • You have an unexplained onset of neck pain accompanied by a history of tuberculosis, HIV, cancer or rheumatoid arthritis.


Do I need an X-Ray or scan?

  • X-rays or scans are NOT usually required to diagnose neck pain.
  • X-rays or scans are NOT able to tell us how much pain you are experiencing.
  • X-rays and scans often show osteoarthritis, disc prolapses and disc bulges which are common in people WITHOUT neck pain and often this does not change how you manage your pain.
  • X-rays and scans are best used where a serious injury (e.g., a broken bone) or conditions such as cancer or infection are suspected.


Do I need a fit note?


Useful resources and websites

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