When Should You Be Concerned About Neck Pain?

- Article by John Miller

When Should You Be Concerned About Neck Pain?

Neck Pain or Stiffness?

Neck pain or a stiff neck is widespread and can affect your life in many ways. Whether it be sharp neck pain, dull muscular aches, headache, or an inability to move your head entirely, a stiff or sore neck can be very frustrating.

There are numerous causes of neck pain. Luckily, most neck pain and discomfort are only mild. It’s usually a simple problem and a quick solution in most cases.

What About Serious Neck Conditions?

Fortunately, most neck pain is not severe. Once we exclude nasties, you can quickly relieve your neck pain and return to a comfortable and fun life!

Some sources of neck pain can be serious. It is crucial to make an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your neck pain so that your physiotherapist or doctor can direct appropriate treatment to the reason.

Please consult your physiotherapist or doctor for the most accurate diagnosis and best treatment for your neck pain.

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If you’ve had an accident with forces that may have been sufficient to fracture your spine or tear nerves, seek a medical assessment as soon as possible. In this instance, call an ambulance or head to a hospital emergency department immediately.

Luckily you can manage most neck pain in a timely fashion.

The rule of thumb is to start a more thorough medical investigation when you meet all three conditions.

The three general red flags for neck pain are:

  1. It’s severe or not improving, or getting worse.
  2. It’s been bothering you for a few weeks.
  3. There is at least one other “red flag” (see below).


Red Flags for Neck Pain

Red flags are reasons to seek a professional opinion rather than to worry. Seek the advice of your doctor or physiotherapist if any of these red flags apply to you.

  • Light tapping on the spine is painful. Seek medical assessment.
  • Unexplained episodes of dizziness or nausea and vomiting may indicate a problem with the stability of the upper cervical spine. Arrange an assessment with your physio or doctor.
  • A severe headache that comes on suddenly is a “thunderclap headache“! Most of these headaches are harmless, but it is always wise to investigate thoroughly.
  • A fierce headache, an inability to bend the head forward, a fever, or an altered mental state. These may be symptoms of meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord caused by infection or drug side effects). Please seek urgent medical assessment at an Emergency Department.
  • Mystery fevers or chills. Please consult your doctor.
  • Remote Symptoms. There are many possible signs of spinal cord trouble in the neck, with or without neck pain, mainly affecting the limbs. Sometimes patients present with neck pain and more remote symptoms and don’t realise they are related. Seek assessment from your physio or doctor.
    • Remote symptoms may include:
      • poor hand coordination;
      • weakness,
      • “heavy” feelings, and atrophy;
      • diffuse numbness;
      • shooting pains in the limbs (especially when bending the head forward);
      • gait awkwardness.
  • Weight loss without dieting is a potential sign of cancer but not a reason to panic, so arrange an appointment with your doctor to assess.
  • Vascular symptoms such as throbbing can indicate a stroke risk. Most cases are sudden, on one side, and cause neck and head pain (in the temple or back of the skull), but the pain is usually strange. Promptly attend a hospital emergency.
  • Autoimmune Disease Signs. The main signs that neck pain might be caused by autoimmune disease specifically include:
    • a family history of autoimmune disease,
    • gradual but progressive increase in symptoms before the age of 40,
    • marked morning stiffness,
    • pain in other joints as well as the low back,
    • rashes,
    • difficult digestion,
    • irritated eyes, and
    • discharge from the urethra (bladder).
  • Steroid use, other drug abuse, and HIV are all risk factors for a serious cause of neck pain.

If you feel pretty unwell in any other way, and you suspect that your neck pain isn’t the only contributor, please arrange a prompt medical assessment.

More info: Neck Pain

Neck Pain Products & FAQs