Neck Pain: When to Call a Doctor

Neck pain is the third most common type of pain for Americans, according to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Health Statistics (NIHS). About two-thirds of the population will experience neck pain in their lifetime. Its side effects can be mild or devastating, and interfere with normal daily functioning such as sitting, turning and sleeping.

"Neck pain is not a trivial condition for many people," says Dr. Scott Haldeman, president of the Bone and Joint Decade 2000-2010 Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders. "It can be associated with headaches, arm and upper back pain and depression. Whether it arises from sports injuries, car collisions, workplace issues or stress, it can be incapacitating."

Neck pain can be acute (lasts less than three months), or chronic (lasts longer than three months). Women are three times more likely to suffer with this health problem than men. If you're under severe stress your risk of neck pain increases by one and a half times. But, if you exercise three times a week or more, or you're flexible, you're less at risk.

In the NIHS study, the majority of respondents - 42 percents - had suffered neck pain for longer than a year. If you don't relish the thought of living this long with a pain in the neck, it helps to know when to call a doctor.

What Causes Neck Pain?

The most common causes of uncomplicated neck pain are poor posture, anxiety, depression, neck strain, and occupational and sporting injuries, states the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Mechanical and degenerative causes, such as cervical spondylosis, are the usual suspects behind chronic neck pain.

Whiplash may cause acute or chronic neck pain, but it's more likely to lead to disability than any of the other causes, according to the AAFP. In rare circumstances, disc prolapse or herniation, cancer, or an inflammatory or infective condition can affect the cervical spine and cause neck pain.

When to See a Doctor for Neck Pain

It's quite common for neck pain to last only a few hours or a few days. But, if it lasts longer, or is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Numbness, tingling or pain in your shoulders arms or legs
  • Vision problems
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting
  • Daily pain in your neck, hands, feet or joints
  • Muscle aches or spasms
  • A severe, long-lasting headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty carrying out daily activities

If you've suffered a whiplash, sporting or occupational injury, you should also see your doctor as soon as possible.

Remedies and Treatment for Neck Pain

Neck pain is one of the main reasons Americans use natural or alternative remedies, states the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Home remedies such as applying an ice pack or heating pad, and mild stretches are typical relief. Reducing stress and sleeping on a cervical pillow may also improve your symptoms.

Other alternative treatments include acupressure, acupuncture, lavender oil massages, electrotherapy, low-level laser therapy, and chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation. Recently, the National Institute of Health found that exercise may be underutilized for chronic back and neck pain. If your doctor doesn't recommend any exercises, ask to be referred to a physical therapist to take advantage of this treatment option.

Some research suggests that early mobilization, and returning to normal activity as soon as possible while using anti-inflammatory drugs may be more effective for mild symptoms than rest and taking time off work.

For neck pain that's accompanied by a pinched nerve, the Task Force suggests that corticosteroid injections may provide relief. They also state that lengthy treatment for neck pain isn't associated with greater improvements; with the right treatment, you should see improvement after two to four weeks. Surgery is usually the last option considered.