June 16, 2017

We’ve all had the experience of waking up with a “crick” in the neck — an ache and stiffness so severe, you find yourself trying not to turn your head. Most people have also experienced that cracking and grinding sensation when turning your head or a sharp stabbing pain, tingling, numbness, or a headache that seems to start at the base of the neck and radiate up the back of your head.

Most of the time such pains in the neck are from benign sources. Neck pain can be caused by muscle strain or holding your head in an awkward position, like spending long periods in front of a computer or cradling your phone between the neck and shoulder. Other, more serious causes include worn joints, injuries like whiplash, and diseases such as fibromyalgia or meningitis.

When to Call a Doctor for Neck Pain

Most often neck pain will resolve on its own. But what are the signs that neck pain could be more serious and need a doctor’s opinion?

As a general guideline, the Mayo Clinic says you should contact a doctor if your neck pain:

  • Is severe
  • Persists for several days without relief
  • Spreads down arms or legs
  • Is accompanied by a headache, numbness, weakness, or tingling

Neck Pain Can Signal Serious Disease

Neck pain can sometimes signal a serious underlying medical issue that needs to be checked by a doctor. Typically, such neck pain will be accompanied by at least one other symptom, often before the stiff or painful neck occurs.

Additional symptoms can include fever, headache, nausea, unexplained drowsiness, confusion or mood swings, unexplained weight loss, or pain that spreads to arms or legs. All these symptoms, along with neck pain, are reasons to check with your doctor.

Uncommon Causes of Neck Pain Requiring Treatment

Serious, underlying conditions that cause neck pain and need to be treated immediately include meningitis, other infections, a tumor, or a neurological disorder that causes spasms or contorting the head outside normal alignment. Another problem of concern is degenerative disc disease, which is more common in the lower back, but can sometimes occur in the cervical or upper spine.

  • Meningitis is a serious infection of the meninges, the protective membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms are similar to flu with fever, nausea, and a stiff neck. There are several forms of meningitis, but viral and bacterial infections are the most common, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Getting immediate medical attention for viral or bacterial meningitis can be the difference between a full recovery or a life-long disability, or even death.
  • Medically referred to as vertebral osteomyelitis, infection in the cervical spine is an uncommon cause of neck pain that needs prompt attention. Symptoms include fever, chills, unexpected weight loss, nighttime pain that is worse than daytime pain, swelling, and infection. Risk factors include being elderly, having a weakened immune system, and intravenous drug use. Treatment with antibiotics usually is sufficient for a full recovery, however, in rare cases, surgery may be needed to relieve pressure on spinal nerves, remove infected material, or stabilize the spine.
  • A brain tumor located in the cerebellum, or back of the skull, can cause a stiff neck, as can a tumor in the neck or spine itself. Spine-Health lists three kinds of spinal tumors that can cause neck pain. Primary or metastatic tumors in the vertebral column can occur in the disc or bone. Intradural-extramedullary tumors grow under the membrane that covers the spinal cord, which can be benign or malignant. Other tumors arise from the nerve root that grows off the spinal cord and branches out to the body. These tumors are usually benign.
  • Cervical dystonia, or spasmodic torticollis, is a neurological condition that can cause neck muscles to spasm uncontrollably or contort the head outside normal alignment. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is rare and most often occurs in middle-aged people. The cause is unknown. Therefore, there is no cure, but it often resolves on its own.

If you’ve got neck pain that just isn’t getting better or the pain is severe, contact us at Healthcare Associates of Texas. We work with you to determine the underlying cause of your pain and find the optimal treatment for you. Call our Appointment Line at (972) 258-7499 or contact us by email.

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