Neck Pain: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment | Musculoskeletal Disorders Of The Neck

Neck pain, can have multiple origins. They can be attributed to a cervical sprain, torticollis, or osteoarthritis.

Very often, they are accompanied by stiffness that limits the movements of the neck. What are the causes? Can we prevent them? How to treat them? Here are our explanations.

Neck pain, neck pain: what is it?

Neck pain is a musculoskeletal disorder that is characterized by pain in the upper part of the spine, in the vertebrae. This pain can extend from the upper back to the neck.

The neck is formed by seven vertebrae, the name of which goes from C1 to C7. Between the vertebrae are the intervertebral discs. These discs contain a gel that gives the neck its mobility and allows it to better absorb shocks.

Without the intervertebral discs, we would feel the vertebrae rubbing against each other. The whole is surrounded by muscles, tendons, and ligaments, whose role is to ensure:

  • stability ;
  • support ;
  • the mobility of the delicate joints of the spine.

In the case of musculoskeletal disorders of the neck or neck pain, the pain is sometimes felt throughout the upper body, in particular:

  • upper back;
  • at the shoulders.

Symptoms of Musculoskeletal Neck Disorders

Symptoms vary depending on the site affected:

  • The vertebrates ;
  • tendons;
  • the ligaments;
  • muscles ;
  • nerves.

Most of the time, neck pain dissipates within a few days to a few weeks, eight to twelve weeks at most.

However, they may last longer if the neck vertebrae are affected:

  • by osteoarthritis;
  • by another chronic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

The different types of neck pain

Here are the most common causes of acute neck pain, that is, pain that lasts for a short time, regardless of its intensity.

Muscle tension and stiffness

Maintaining a posture for several hours or performing repetitive movements while having poor posture leads to prolonged muscle contractions in the shoulders and neck, which may become painful.

Cervical sprain

A cervical sprain is commonly called whiplash or whiplash.

It can occur when:

  • of a car accident in the event of movement of the head forwards, then backward;
  • of a strong impact during the practice of a sport.

Recovery usually takes four to six weeks. Pain that does not go away is most often caused by lack of movement. Indeed, people who have neck pain tend to keep their necks still, which increases the tension in the muscles.


Torticollis results from an involuntary muscle contraction, a spasm, that occur on the side or back of the neck. The head gets stuck in a certain position. Any movement of the neck becomes almost impossible. Most often torticollis occurs suddenly, sometimes in a time of high stress. More rarely, it can result:

  • a sprain;
  • of a herniated disc.

Important. Meningitis sometimes causes severe stiffness in the neck that can be confused with torticollis. A doctor should be consulted immediately if:

  • fever;
  • vomiting;
  • severe headaches;
  • hypersensitivity to light.

Here are the most common causes of chronic neck pain, that is, pain that lasts for several weeks or months. Be careful, the word “chronic” does not mean that these pains cannot be cured.

Osteoarthritis of the neck vertebrae

Cervical spondylosis is more common in women. They usually suffer from it after the age of 35. In men, osteoarthritis occurs later, around the age of fifty.

Small bumps form on the vertebrae. These sometimes interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses.

All kinds of problems can result from this:

  • headaches ;
  • dizziness when changing head position;
  • ringing in the ears;
  • minor vision problems;

From the age of 50, signs of mild cervical osteoarthritis are detected in almost everyone. But most of the time, osteoarthritis in the neck caused by aging does not cause pain.

A chronic systemic disease

About 10% of cases of neck pain are caused by some form of arthritis.

Neck pain: who is affected?

Although less common than back pain, neck pain still affects 10 to 20% of the adult population.

Musculoskeletal disorders of the neck that cause pain affect an increasing number of people.

This phenomenon is mainly explained by:

  • by the aging of the population;
  • by the fact that more and more workers spend long hours in front of the computer.

The link between computer use and neck pain is probable, but there is no scientific certainty

Do you know how to recognize the symptoms of musculoskeletal neck disorders or neck pain? Do you know the risk factors and the people most vulnerable to these pains?

Here are our answers.

Neck pain: what are the symptoms?

When you have musculoskeletal neck disorders, you may experience any of the following symptoms:

  • neck pain and stiffness;
  • limited neck movement, sometimes to one side more than the other;
  • pain in the upper neck, upper back, shoulders, and arms;
  • dizziness ;
  • headaches ;
  • when a nerve root is compressed or inflamed: numbness, tingling, or weakness in an arm or hand.

Who are the people at risk?

People at risk for musculoskeletal neck disorders are:

  • women who are a little more prone to neck pain than men;
  • people practicing contact sports such as football, boxing, hockey, etc., and soccer players who return the ball using the head. The accumulation of small incidents increase, over time, the risk of osteoarthritis of the vertebrae of the neck;
  • certain types of workers, more specifically those who must maintain the neck in a position of flexion or extension for a prolonged period, for example, painters, jointers, and people who work under a microscope. Computer work also increases the risk of neck and upper body pain, especially when sitting for several hours and having poor posture;
  • people who have had several small incidents in the neck are more likely, over time, for osteoarthritis to appear in the vertebrae of the neck.

What are the risk factors?

The risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders of the neck are very similar to those for back pain:

  • obesity;
  • a high degree of job dissatisfaction or stress;
  • intense practice of certain physical activities in inappropriate postures;
  • a problem with the spine: scoliosis, lordosis, etc. ;
  • the use of an unsuitable pillow: too flat, too thick or not supporting the head well;
  • smoking.

This last :

  • increases the risk of osteoporosis and fractures;
  • reduces bone mineral density;
  • causes spinal degeneration.

To avoid musculoskeletal problems in the neck, you have to adopt several small daily actions.

How to avoid neck pain?

Practice physical exercise during leisure time

Exercising can prevent most neck pain, researchers. Indeed, sedentary workers who have a low level of physical activity during their leisure time run a greater risk of having neck and shoulder problems.

Do not stay in a seated position for too long without changing position

It is necessary to reserve moments of relaxation every hour to stretch:

  • the neck ;
  • legs ;
  • arms.

Adapt your workstation to your size

To properly adapt your workstation to your size, you need:

  • to adjust his chair;
  • adjust the height of the computer screen and keyboard;
  • supporting his forearms;

Perform safe movements

Carrying out safe movements is very important when exercising a profession where physical force is deployed. It is advisable to seek information from a duly trained professional.

In the car, properly adjust the height of the headrest

Indeed, it is important to properly adjust the height of the head restraint: the eyes must be at mid-height of the head restraint.

Other preventive measures

The following measures are also recommended:

  • practice exercises to strengthen the muscles of the neck and trunk;
  • become aware of your posture and correct it if necessary;
  • when practicing a sport, protect yourself with adequate equipment and muscular training;
  • avoid sleeping on your stomach.

The best way is to get personalized advice for better prevention

with :

  • a sports medicine specialist;
  • a physiotherapist;
  • of an occupational therapist.

If the pain in the neck does not decrease after having provided the treatments suggested below for a few days, it is advisable to consult a doctor or a physiotherapist.

Musculoskeletal disorders of the neck: treatments

Treatment of the acute phase


For a few days, large neck movements should be avoided. It is still recommended to do light stretches, in the non-painful directions:

  • turn the neck to look to the left, then to the right;
  • bend the neck forward, bring it back to the center, then bend towards the left shoulder, and towards the right;
  • avoid rotational movements of the head.

The cervical collar should be avoided, as it creates muscle weakness and helps prolong healing time. Prolonged rest also helps:

  • to stiffen the joint;
  • to the development of chronic pain.


It is recommended to apply ice to the painful area three or four times a day, for 10 to 12 minutes to reduce the inflammation reaction.

It is good to do this as long as the acute symptoms persist. There is no need to use cold compresses or “magic bags”: they are not cold enough and they heat up in a few minutes.

Warning for the application of cold

Ice cubes wrapped in a plastic bag or in a wet towel can be applied to the skin.

In this case, choose a thin towel. There are also sachets of cooling soft gel or Ice pak® sold in pharmacies.

These products are sometimes practical, but they should not be placed directly on the skin: this could cause frostbite.

A bag of frozen peas or corn is another practical and economical solution: it molds well to the shape of the body and can be applied directly to the skin.

Medicines to relieve pain or painkillers

Paracetamol, such as Tylenol and Atasol, is often enough to relieve mild to moderate pain.

The following drugs also have an analgesic effect:

  • anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen: Advil, Motrin, etc. ;
  • acetylsalycilic acid: Aspirin;
  • le naproxène : Anaprox, Naprosyn ;
  • diclofenac: Voltaren.

On the other hand, they cause more side effects and should therefore be used in moderation.

Inflammation following trauma is part of the healing process, different from inflammation in arthritis, for example, and does not necessarily have to be fought.

One can also use a cream based on anti-inflammatories such as diclofenac, such as Voltaren emulgel, which makes it possible to avoid systemic side effects.

Muscle relaxants, such as Robaxacet and Robaxisal, can also help, but they cause drowsiness.

To overcome this effect, it is recommended to take them at bedtime or in low doses during the day. They should not be used for more than a few days. These medicines contain an analgesic:

  • paracetamol for Robaxacet;
  • ibuprofen for Robaxisal.

It is therefore necessary to avoid taking them at the same time as another analgesic.

A doctor is able to suggest the best class of pain medication, if needed. In case of stronger pain, he can prescribe opioid analgesics, that is to say derivatives of morphine. When there is neurological pain, anticonvulsant drugs or other drugs that act on neurotransmitters may be prescribed.

During the acute phase, gentle massages can help relieve tension temporarily.


When the neck pain subsides, after 24 to 48 hours, it is a good idea to practice careful and gradual stretching exercises several times a day.

It may be helpful to apply heat to the muscles just before starting the stretching exercises, using a moist compress warmed in the oven or a warm bath. The heat relaxes the muscles. Once the exercises are finished, ice can be applied.

You can consult a physiotherapist if necessary. It seems that combining walking with a physiotherapy program and stretching exercises done at home can better relieve neck pain.

Corticosteroids and injections

In some cases, this option can be considered if previous treatments have proven ineffective. Corticosteroids have an anti-inflammatory action.

An injection of lidocaine, a local anesthetic, in the painful places, or trigger zones, has shown some effectiveness. Doctors often combine lidocaine with a corticosteroid.

In case of chronic pain

Symptom Diary

It is good to be attentive to the situations that give rise to pain, to note them and to discuss them with your doctor or a physiotherapist. Do they get worse in the morning or at the end of the day? Should the layout of the workstation be assessed by an ergonomist? Would a permanent state of stress create tension in the trapezius muscles and in the neck?


If there is compression of a nerve root in the neck area that would cause numbness or weakness in the arms, surgery may be indicated. A damaged intervertebral disc can also be removed by surgery. The vertebrae are then fused together.

Complementary approaches to medical treatments can effectively relieve musculoskeletal disorders of the neck, such as neck pain.

Complementary approaches


A meta-analysis bringing together the results of ten controlled clinical trials indicates that acupuncture relieves chronic neck pain more effectively than a placebo treatment. The beneficial effects of acupuncture have mainly been observed in the short term. 

It is therefore unknown whether these effects persist over time. In addition, according to the authors of the meta-analysis, the methodological quality of the studies is rather low.


Many studies on the effects of cervical manipulation have been published. Mobilization, or gentle movement, and cervical manipulation would reduce:

  • pain ;
  • functional disability.

However, according to the authors of scientific literature reviews, the lack of quality of the studies does not allow concluding with certainty the effectiveness of chiropractic in the treatment of neck pain.

Note that the chiropractic approach includes:

  • advice on ergonomics and posture;
  • exercises to practice regularly to prevent and treat the problem.


Some studies indicate that osteopathy relieves acute or chronic pain of various origins.

For example, a randomized clinical trial, carried out on 58 patients with neck pain for less than three weeks, shows that this approach could be as effective as a known analgesic in treating acute musculoskeletal pain.

Other studies indicate that osteopathy can relieve:

  • headaches;
  • neck and back pain.

However, more rigorous and larger studies are needed to validate these results.

Massage therapy

Studies conducted to date have not concluded that massage therapy is effective in relieving chronic neck pain .

Arnica ou Arnica montana

The German Commission E has approved the external use of arnica in the treatment of muscle and joint disorders, among others.

The ESCOP also recognizes that arnica effectively relieves pain caused by a sprain or rheumatism.

Devil’s Claw or Harpagophytum procumbens

The German Commission E approves the use of devil’s claw root, internally, in the treatment of degenerative disorders of the musculoskeletal system:

  • skeleton ;
  • muscles ;
  • articulations.

The ESCOP also recognizes its effectiveness in the treatment of pain accompanying osteoarthritis. Several clinical trials indicate that extracts of this plant relieve pain related to:

  • osteoarthritis;
  • to back pain.

However, no studies have been conducted with subjects with neck pain. Devil’s claw would reduce the production of substances involved in inflammation.


Take 3 to 6 g per day of devil’s claw root powder tablets or capsules, with food.

You can also consume devil’s claw in the form of a standardized extract: then take 600 to 1,200 mg of extract per day, while eating.

Devil’s Claw is mostly found in the form of root powder capsules or tablets, usually standardized to 3% gluco-iridoids, or 1.2 to 2% harpagoside;
it is recommended to follow this treatment for at least two or three months in order to take full advantage of its effects.

Peppermint essential oil or Mentha x piperita

Commission E, the World Health Organization and ESCOP recognize that peppermint essential oil has several therapeutic effects. Taken externally, it helps relieve pain:

  • muscle;
  • neuralgic, that is to say located along a nerve;
  • rheumatic.


Rub the affected part with one of the following preparations:

  • 2 or 3 drops of essential oil, pure or diluted in vegetable oil;
  • cream, oil or ointment containing 5 to 20% essential oil;
  • tincture containing 5 to 10% essential oil.

Repeat as needed.

Huile de perfortuis ou Hypericus perforatum

Commission E recognizes the effectiveness of St. John’s wort oil, when used externally, in the treatment of muscle pain. However, the benefits of this traditional use have not been confirmed by scientific studies.


Use store-bought St. John’s wort oil or steep St. John’s wort flowers in vegetable oil.

White willow or Salix alba

The bark of the white willow contains salicin, the molecule which is at the origin of acetylsalicylic acid or Aspirin. It has analgesic properties, that is to say which reduce or eliminate pain, and anti-inflammatory properties.

Commission E and ESCOP recognize the effectiveness of willow bark in the internal relief of neck pain caused by:

  • by osteoarthritis;
  • by a rheumatic disease.

somatic education

Somatic education brings together several approaches aimed at ensuring:

  • greater body awareness;
  • greater ease of movement.

Some associations recommend it to relieve chronic pain: indeed, in practice, this approach has physical and psychological benefits .

Somatic education can also be used preventively. It helps in particular to have a better posture and facilitates breathing.

Relaxation and Relaxation

Deep breathing or gradual relaxation are hugely helpful in releasing muscle tension .

Image Credit: Photo by Kindel Media from

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