Types of Neck Pain

Neck pain is very common, but it can take many forms, and symptoms can vary widely. For some patients, neck pain is constant, while for others it comes and goes. Some of the most common neck pain types include:

  • Stiff neck. Irritated, sore muscles can cause pain when moving the head, especially from side to side.
  • Sharp pain. A stabbing pain in one location is most common in lower areas of the neck.
  • Radiating pain. Pain that moves from the neck into the shoulders, arms, and hands. This pain may be described as a burning sensation.
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness. These “pins and needles” sensations can extend from the neck into the shoulders, arms, or hands.
  • Headache. Neck muscles that are tightened or irritated can affect connected muscles and nerves in the head, causing tension headaches. The pain is most often felt in the sides of the head and the scalp.
  • Cracking, snapping, and crunching. The neck may make sounds, particularly when you turn your head from side to side. Called crepitus, these sounds on their own most often do not indicate a serious condition.

Sometimes, neck pain develops suddenly, often after an injury or strain. In other cases, it becomes noticeable slowly, worsening over time. Neck pain that grows worse is often caused by a degenerative condition, such as osteoarthritis.

In addition, the location and type of the pain may provide clues about its causes. For example, when a nerve is compressed at or near the top of the spine, it can cause headaches. Farther down the cervical spine, irritation of nerves may result in changes in the arms, such as weakness or numbness.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention for:

  • Radiating arm or leg pain
  • Numbness, tingling, or weakness in arms or legs
  • Problems with balance or coordination
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Unintended weight loss

Seek immediate medical care if you experience:

  • Fever, headache, and neck too stiff to move comfortably. These may be symptoms of a serious infection, such as meningitis.
  • Shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, or arm or jaw pain. These may be signs of a heart attack.