Neck pain: When you should be concerned

“John, you have been complaining about this neck pain for months,” Phillip noted. “I think it's about time you went to see your doctor, this might be more than just pain,” he added.   

Neck pain is one of the most common symptoms people experience. At work, at school, or while we play, we turn the neck from side to side, up and down, all day, every day, and so it is not rare to hear people complain about a sore or stiff neck. However, there are some situations that may call for more attention, situations where neck pain may be a sign of something more serious.

Common causes of neck pain  

Neck pain could be caused by common problems, such as muscle strain, neck injury, and worn joints, which come from everyday activities.   

Common symptoms associated with neck pain include:   

  • Muscle tightness and stiff neck  
  • Headache   
  • Sore shoulder muscles   

Examples of serious conditions that present with neck pain include:   

Severe throat infection: This is usually caused by bacteria. If you have a high fever and throat pain, see a doctor for a full examination.  

Meningitis: This is inflammation of the membrane covering the brain, called meninges. Meningitis is usually caused by bacteria, and it causes severe headache, neck pain or stiffness, and fever. Patients have difficulty moving their heads from side to side, along with other symptoms, such as feeling uncomfortable when exposed to bright light and having a high-grade fever. There may be rashes and vomiting. In children and young adults, meningitis may cause severe complications, such as mental retardation and hearing loss.   

Cancer: Neck pain could be a symptom of cancer in the head and neck region, such as cancer of the throat. These cancers also present with other symptoms, such as difficulty or painful swallowing, bleeding in the mouth, frequent headaches, difficulty speaking, voice changes, weight loss, a visible tumor (mass), and trouble breathing.   

Herniated disk: The backbone or spine is made of individual bones called vertebrae that are separated by soft disks, giving the spine both flexibility and strength. In some situations, these disks could push out of the spaces between the vertebrae and compress the delicate nerves that pass through the spine. Herniated disks can lead to severe pain that radiates down the arm. Other possible symptoms are tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arm, shoulder, or hand. 

So, while there are several common causes of neck pain, including muscle strain, injuries, worn joints, and arthritis, there are red flags that may suggest that the pain is caused by something more serious. Pay attention to these red flags, including recurring fevers, severe headache, weight loss, pain radiating from the neck to the arms and shoulders, weakness of the arms and shoulders, vomiting, neck stiffness, and night sweats. Seek prompt medical evaluation if these occur. 

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