Find where it hurts

Neck pain can occur in any of the structures of the neck and may extend into the shoulders and upper chest or back. Locations of neck pain can include the back or sides of the neck and the base of the skull.

Symptoms of neck pain

Symptoms of neck pain can vary depending on whether the pain arises from the nerves or the
muscles. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper chest
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Difficulty or pain (mainly in one area) when turning or moving the head
  • Limited range of motion
  • Headaches

Neck nerve pain may feel more like a sharp, stabbing, or burning pain. It often radiates (spreads) down the arms into the fingers and can cause other symptoms such as numbness or tingling (pins and needles).

Neck muscle pain may feel more like a throbbing or aching pain, mainly in one area, that typically worsens with activity. It often feels sharp and localised when it affects superficial (closer to the surface) structures and feels dull and more spread out when it affects deeper structures. It can sometimes radiate into the upper arms, but often extends into the base of the skull.

For advice on the most appropriate management of your neck pain, seek advice from your healthcare professional.

What are common neck pain causes?

A common cause of neck pain is muscle strain. This can be acute pain or spasms that start suddenly after an unexpected head movement or strain on the neck muscles. More often, it is caused by poor sitting or working postures that put more strain on joints and muscles, especially if you spend a lot of time looking up at a computer screen or down at a smartphone. Neck pain from sleeping with poor neck support or in an awkward position is also caused by muscle strain.

Other common causes of neck pain include osteoarthritis (a condition that affects the joints of the body, resulting in pain and loss of function) and injuries such as whiplash (a type of neck sprain that most commonly happens after a car accident) or a slipped disc (damage to the tissue between vertebrae that can cause neck nerve pain).

If you are concerned about your neck pain for any reason, you should seek advice from your doctor.

How to find neck pain relief

Most neck pain will go away within a few days. In the meantime, using an anti-inflammatory pain reliever such as ibuprofen can help to reduce inflammation and provide relief from pain, including some neck pain associated with muscle pain.

Managing neck pain

When managing neck pain, it is important to keep moving your neck, as too much rest can cause stiffness in your neck muscles. Gentle stretching and strengthening exercises can help loosen muscles and manual therapy (e.g. physiotherapy) can help get those joints and muscles moving again. Using heat (e.g. heat packs, warm shower) or cold (e.g. ice packs, cooling gels) can also help relieve pain and stiffness.

It can help to figure out what triggers your neck pain and adjust your activities and posture to prevent it happening. Massage and relaxation exercises can help reduce muscle tension and stress that contribute to your neck pain.

For advice on the most appropriate way to manage your neck pain, speak with your healthcare professional.

Preventing neck pain

You can help prevent neck pain by keeping your spine flexible and strong with these tips:

  • 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day can improve posture and muscle strength
  • Practice good posture when sitting — avoid slouching and working with your head down for too long and make sure your workstation is properly adjusted for your posture
  • Take regular breaks from sitting or standing, to move and stretch your joints and muscles
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach and choose a low, firm pillow that supports your neck properly

Chronic neck pain: when to see a doctor

Neck pain can sometimes last more than a few days and can come back or be ongoing.

If you are concerned about your neck pain for any reason, you should seek advice from your doctor.