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Causes of Neck Pain 

Learn about the signs, symptoms and treatments

Injury or chronic pain in the neck or arms can get in the way of an active lifestyle. Depending on your level of pain, you may even have trouble driving a car, typing on a keyboard, or completing other normal activities of daily living. These aches can be brought on by any number of factors, both external and internal. It’s important to listen to the cues your body provides about where the pain lies, how severe it is, how long it lasts, and how frequently it recurs. If the problem does not require immediate medical attention, monitor your symptoms so you can share with a spinal specialist how frequently it recurs. Keep track and monitor your symptoms to better describe them when seeking evaluation with a spinal specialist.

It is important to note that neck pain can be either localized to the cervical spine or it may radiate down your arm, which is referred to as “radiculopathy”. Learn about all of the symptoms and conditions associated with cervical spine conditions.

Common Spine Conditions That May Be Causing Your Neck Pain

Annular Disc Tear

Most annular disc tears are caused by the natural aging process. Since the neck and back are responsible for bearing most of a person’s body weight, they are susceptible to a great deal of wear over time. Predominant symptoms in many patients with an annular tear in the low back include mid line back pain in excess of leg pain. Pain is often worse when sitting compared to standing, and positions that load pressure on the disc (coughing, sneezing, forward bending and lifting) tend to aggravate symptoms.

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Arthritis

Many people with arthritic changes will describe stiffness or localized aching at the involved. area. For those who develop arthritis in the cervical spine (neck) they may have difficulty turning or bending their neck. In severe cases, arthritic changes may place pressure on a nerve root, pinching that nerve and causing pain, sensation changes, or weakness in the affected limb. With arthritis in the cervical spine conservative treatment is typically first-line care. Many modalities may be used to promote optimal spine health, improve mobility and strength, and reduce pain.

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Bone Spurs

Bone spurs in the neck are simply an indication that there are increased forces on the joints of the spine. In response to this over time, the body remodels bone. In many cases, bone spurs and other degenerative changes may be considered a normal process of aging. The presence of bone spurs alone does not necessarily mean that they are the actual cause of pain. The diagnosis of bone spurs can be easily made with x-rays.

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Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease in the neck is a condition that involves weakening of one or more vertebral discs which normally act as a cushion between the vertebrae. This condition can develop as a natural part of the aging process but may also result from an injury. When the disc degenerates the disc begins to lose many of the properties which make it a good shock absorber. This process can cause considerable pain and spasms.

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Disc Herniation

A herniated disc in the neck may occur when too much force is exerted on an otherwise healthy intervertebral disc. Heavy forces on the neck may simply be too much for even a healthy disc to absorb. A disc herniation, by definition, is displacement of disc material beyond the normal confines of the disc space. The terms disc protrusion, disc bulge, disc herniation, ruptured disc, and slipped disc all mean the same thing and imply that disc material has left the normal disc space. Treatment of a herniated disc depends on the severity of symptoms and apparent nerve damage. Most disc herniations improve in six weeks to three months from the initial injury.

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Facet Syndrome

Cervical facet joint pain can be felt in the areas of the base of the skull, upper back and shoulders, mid-back or neck. Some patients may present with frequent headaches or even ringing in the ears. Facet Syndrome has several potential causes such as whiplash injury or even abnormal posture which overloads spinal tissues causing inflammation and pain in facet joints. Most conservative treatments involve postural correction, soft tissue massage and manipulation of affected areas, and possibly injections.

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Myelopathy

Myelopathy describes any neurologic symptoms related to the spinal cord and is a serious condition as it can cause permanent spinal cord injury. This occurs from pressure on the spinal cord from spinal stenosis, a disc herniation, and bone spurs. Myelopathy is a very serious condition that if untreated can lead to significant and permanent nerve damage including paralysis and death.

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Myofascial Pain / Muscle Spasms

Myofascial pain syndrome in the neck is thought to be a form of muscle pain that may result from a single trauma to a muscle or from repetitive minor trauma over time. These painful trigger points in your neck develop in susceptible muscle tissues that are overworked for long periods of time. Stress, poor sleep and physical deconditioning have a significant effect on worsening symptoms. With a spine-specialized physical therapy symptoms of myofascial pain syndrome typically resolve.

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Spinal Fractures

Fractures of the neck usually occur as a result of high energy trauma, but can also be caused by weakened bones from osteoporosis, tumors, or other medical conditions. Treatment for spinal fractures will depend on the location and type of fracture as well as other the amount of neurological compression.

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Spinal Stenosis

Stenosis refers to a narrowing of the spinal canal to a degree where the spinal cord or nerve roots may be compromised. Symptoms depend on whether narrowing affects the spinal nerve roots, the spinal cord, or both. If only spinal nerve roots are involved the patient will experience radiculopathy with symptoms radiating into their arms and hands. Cervical spinal stenosis does tend to progress with ongoing degenerative changes.

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Spondylosis

Spondylosis in the neck is a general term for degenerative arthritic changes of the cervical spine, or more simply arthritis. while generally thought to occur as we age, these changes can happen at any age. Patients may be at increased risk to have early spondylosis if they participate in high impact sports, have heavy labor jobs, a history of previous neck injury as well as history of smoking. Genetics also does play a role in those with spondylosis. Symptoms often can include headaches, limited range of motion, crepitus (a grinding noise which may be heard with movement), or pain with certain activities or positions.

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Whiplash

Whiplash is a common injury to the soft tissues of the neck that can happen when the neck suddenly moves backward and then forward.  The soft tissues that can be involved in a whiplash injury include the ligaments and the muscles of the neck that support the head and hold it erect. The most common reasons for whiplash include motor vehicle accidents, sporting injuries, or falls from a height. People with whiplash may have neck pain, stiffness, and tightness radiating from the head out into the shoulders and upper back. Whiplash can range from mild to severe.

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When to Seek Care for Your Neck Symptoms

Some neck pain or associated symptoms of discomfort results from something as simple as sleeping in an odd position. While temporarily uncomfortable, it will eventually decrease. Every patient has a different threshold for pain, and even the most severe of ailments can creep up on you with little warning.  How can you tell the difference between minor symptoms and a deeper ailment? Seek help immediately if your neck and arm aches are the result of a sudden or severe injury, such as a fall or a car accident. Here are some red flags that indicate immediate medical care is necessary:

  • Extreme neck stiffness
  • Symptoms lasting more than one week
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Difficulty balancing
  • Incontinence

Our Doctors That Treat Neck Conditions

Dr. Thomas Schuler

Spine Surgeon
Founder of Virginia Spine Institute
Chief Executive Officer

Dr. Christopher Good

Spine Surgeon
President of Virginia Spine Institute

Dr. Colin Haines

Spine Surgeon
Director of Research

Dr. Ehsan Jazini

Spine Surgeon

Dr. Steven Papuchis

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

Dr. Niteesh Bharara

Orthopedic Specialist - Non-Surgical Sports Medicine
Director of Regenerative Medicine

Dr. Thomas Nguyen

Interventional Pain Management Specialist

Hear From Our Patients

“I am looking forward to my new life as a pain free Wife!”

– Amelia B.

“I chose to make the 10 hour trip to Virginia Spine Institute because I was unable to get any positive responses locally.”

– Crystal S.

“Thank you, Dr. Jazini, and the entire staff at VSI! I’m proud to be a VSI Spinal Champion and am grateful to have found such an amazing team during my medical crisis!”

– Kaitlin S.

“I went from not being able to do virtually anything to enjoying life once again!”

– Sara M.

“You don’t realize how much pain you’re in until you don’t have any.”

– Tommy W.

“I am forever grateful to Dr. Good and the team at Virginia Spine Institute”

– Jazmin M.

“My first appointment with Dr. Haines changed my entire life!”

– Jaime M.

“I can’t believe I waited over
20 years to get treatment at
Virginia Spine Institute!”

– Salvia G.

Videos on Neck Pain

Common Causes for Neck Pain

Spine Conditions That Cause Neck Pain

Advances in Motion-Preserving Surgery for Neck Pain and Cervical Spine Conditions

Dr. Schuler Provides Hope for Those Suffering With Back or Neck Pain.

When Is Spinal Surgery Necessary For Back or Neck Pain?

When You Should See a Specialist for Back or Neck Pain

Schedule a Neck Pain Consultation