Overview of Neck Pain

Neck pain is a common effect of aging. It may begin with a faint twinge on one side of the neck or in the shoulder upon waking in the morning, and often worsens as the day goes on. The pain may spread down the arm to the hand. Over-the-counter pain relievers, rest, and heat applied to the area may help.

Man Rubbing Neck - Masterfile Image

There are several causes of neck pain. One of the most common causes is the constant turning, twisting, and bending of the neck, day after day, year after year. Contact between opposing surfaces in the spine may result in the development of small outgrows of bone, called osteophytes, or spurs.

The spinal cord, which is part of the central nervous system (CNS), conveys information to and from the brain and responds by itself to certain lower functions. Nerves originate in the spinal cord and exit through small foramen (canals). Basically, at each spinal level, nerves emerge from the spinal canal, exit through their respective foramen, and travel to distant locations in the body. When spurs develop near the foramen, they pinch the nerve that is trying to exit from that canal. Constant friction and pinching cause inflammation and pain, which may occur at the site of the friction or, more often, at a distant site, such as at the shoulder or down the arm.

Pinched nerves are only one cause of neck pain. As in the lower back, cervical disks can bulge, protrude, and herniate, which also can cause pain. Muscle pain usually will heal eventually, and pain from a pinched nerve may diminish temporarily, but other types of neck pain require treatment to reduce the risk for neurological damage (e.g., numbness, weakness).

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Apr 2000

Last Modified: 28 Sep 2015