Neck Pain: 8 Common Causes & What To Do

Updated in August 2022

Neck pain (on the right or left side) is a common problem that is usually related to muscular tension. Tension felt in the neck can be a result of stress, sleeping in an improper position or using a computer for prolonged periods. ​

Neck pain can also be a sign of a more serious condition, like spinal disease, a herniated disc or and infection, like tonsillitis, osteomyelitis or meningitis.

When neck pain lasts for more than 1 week or if it does not improve with warm compresses or analgesics, you should see a doctor for more specific treatment. 

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The most common causes of neck pain include:

1. Muscular tension

Improper posture for prolonged periods of time, like when you are reading, sitting at a computer, or sleeping, can cause muscular tension. Muscular tension in the neck can also emerge with bruxism, a condition characterized by grinding of the teeth when sleeping. Bruxism can cause a sensation of heaviness felt between the neck and ear. 

What to do: Neck pain can be relieved with rest and by applying hot compresses to the affected regions. Analgesic and anti-inflammatory medication can also help to manage pain, as well as being mindful of better posture throughout the day. Exercises aimed at strengthening the neck muscles can prevent further tension flare-ups. Check out these stretches for the neck and back that can help to relieve tension throughout the day. 

People who have neck pain as a result of bruxism may need a dental guard, as fitted by a dentist.

2. Torcicollis 

Usually, torcicollis happens at night time, and is noted upon waking, when you are unable to move your neck. It can also be triggered by brisk movements of the neck that cause a muscular spasm. With torcicollis, pain is easily identified and is localized to one side. 

What to do: Apply a hot compress to affected side of the neck for 15 to 20 minutes to help relieve pain. Check out other ways to cure torcicollis fast

3. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis in the spine consists of cartilage breakdown between the vertebrae. It can cause symptoms like pain and difficulty moving. 

What to do: Arthritis cannot be cured, but it can be managed with analgesic medications (like acetaminophen), opioids (like Tramadol), topical or oral anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen), or supplements like glucosamine sulfate or chondroitin which help to regenerate the cartilage. 

Learn more about what can cause pain at the back of the neck and how you can treat it.

4. Herniated cervical disk 

A herniated cervical disk is when part of the intervertebral disc in the neck region bulges out. This can occur with spinal degeneration and bad posture. 

One of the main symptoms of a herniated disc is neck pain, which can radiate to the shoulders, arms and hands. It can cause tingling and numbness, although severe cases can lead to weakness and difficulty moving the neck.

What to do: Symptoms can be relieved by applying hot compresses to the painful areas. You can also lightly massage the area to relax the muscles and treat pain with medications, like analgesics and muscle relaxants. It is important to maintain correct posture to decrease nerve compression in the neck and to stretch the neck to maintain range of motion.

5. After an accident

Trauma to the neck can occur following a car accident, in which sudden stoppages can result in whip lash.

What to do: The doctor can prescribe strong analgesics and muscle relaxants to relieve pain, however physiotherapy may also be needed. 

6. Rheumatoid arthritis 

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes symptoms like joint pain. This condition does not have a cure, but the right treatment can help to improve quality of life, reduce symptoms and prevent worsening. 

What to do: You can try using a natural approach to manage the condition, like using horsetail or eggplant with lemon. Pain and symptoms can also be addressed with anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen and celecoxib), corticosteroids (like prednisolone) or immunosuppressants (like methotrexate or leflunomide). Treatment with physiotherapy is a great way to reduce pain, control inflammation and maintain range of motion. 

7. Meningitis

Meningitis is a serious inflammation of the meninges, which are the membranes that line the brain and spinal cord. Generally, this disease is caused by viruses or bacteria, and can occur following an ill-treated flu, for example. In some cases, it can be causes by direct trauma or fungal, and it commonly affects people with a weakened immune system. One of the most common symptoms of meningitis is neck stiffness with intense pain and difficulty lowering your chin to your chest. 

What to do: Treatment for meningitis depends on the underlying cause. It can be treated with antibiotics, antivirals or corticosteroids, usually in a hospital setting. 

8. Cancer

The appearance of a lump in the neck can be a sign of cancer. A malignant lump will usually emerge with other symptoms like neck pain, hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, the sensation of a lump in a throat, frequent choking, weight loss and general malaise. Check-out the signs and symptoms of cancer you should never ignore.

What to do: If you notice these symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately to confirm a diagnosis. From there, the best treatment approach can be determined. 

Check out other causes of a lump on the side of the neck and how to treat it.