Causes of neck pain

Neck pain is a common condition that affects most people in their 30s and 40s. In most cases, neck pain is not caused by a serious problem.

Around 50 per cent of people with neck pain will experience a recurrence of their problem. It’s important to understand what may have caused your neck pain, if you want to try to prevent it from returning. 

Neck pain caused by sleeping posture

What can cause neck pain?

In most cases, it is not possible to identify the exact cause of neck pain. It’s important to know that any kind of serious structural damage is rare, and the most likely cause is a strain of one of the small joints located on the side of the neck. These joints are called ‘facet joints’. Less commonly involved are the intervertebral disc and even less so, the nerves.

With the widespread use of x-ray and MRI scans it is not uncommon for people with neck pain to have a diagnosis based upon their x-ray or scan results. However, it’s important to know that there is not a strong link between x-ray and MRI scan findings of ‘spondylosis’ and ‘degeneration’ and a person’s pain.

Neck pain is less common as we grow older, but ‘wear and tear’, ‘arthritis’ and ‘disc degeneration’ are more common and can be found in people who do not experience neck pain.

How do lifestyle factors cause neck pain?

To understand what has triggered your neck pain it can be useful to look at ‘lifestyle factors’. Research suggests that these can play an important part in making the neck structures more sensitive.

Lifestyle factors include:

  • poor quality and quantity of sleep,
  • noticing more muscle tension in your neck,
  • low levels of physical activity,
  • and more stressful periods of life

These factors can all build up the sensitivity and make it more likely that you will experience neck pain.

Does posture plays a part in neck pain?

There is increasing evidence that posture plays a much smaller role in neck problems than previously thought. It does not appear to be poor posture that is related to pain (although these remain strong societal beliefs).

What does appear to contribute to neck pain is our more sedentary lives, where we hold our bodies in sustained positions for extended periods of time e.g. sitting  at an office desk or watching TV on the sofa.

Neck symptoms to be aware of

These symptoms are very rare but you should contact a doctor if you experience any of them:

  • Severe head, neck or arm pain that is constant or disturbs sleep.
  • Weakness and loss of feeling in the arms or legs.
  • A history of inflammatory arthritis, immuno-suppression, cancer, TB, drug abuse, AIDS or other infection.
  • If you feel unwell, have a fever or unexplained weight loss.
  • A history of violent trauma (e.g. a road traffic accident or a fall from height) or a history of neck surgery.
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