Neck pain is one of the most common complaints in the general population and the fourth leading cause of disability following low back pain, depression, and arthralgia. According to the duration of the symptoms, it can be acute, sub-acute or chronic. The most common causes of neck pain are posture-related, cervical radiculopathy, myelopathy, degenerative diseases, or trauma. Careful physical and clinical evaluation can be helpful in finding out the cause. Treatment of neck pain is usually conservative. Patients who do not respond to medical therapy might benefit from a surgical intervention. 
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Image: “neck check.” By woodleywonderworks. License: CC BY 2.0


Neck pain is defined as a sense of uncomfortableness to the neck, which is often neglected despite its physical, mental and even economic impact. It is one of the leading causes of DALY (disability-adjusted life year) loss or disability following other orthopedic causes like lower back pain and arthralgia. More than 50 % of the general population get some sort of neck pain in their lifetime, with a mean prevalence rate of one episode of neck pain around 40 % per year. 

Classification of Acute Neck Pain

There is more than one way to classify neck pain, e.g., according to chronicity (like acute vs chronic) or according to the etiology (postural vs neuropathic). Since the duration of neck pain is the single most important predictor of the outcome, classification according to the duration of the pain is the most accepted one in clinical practice.

So, neck pain can be classified as

  • Acute: If the symptom persists for less than 6 weeks
  • Sub-acute: If the symptom persists for less than or equal to 3 months
  • Chronic: If the symptom persists for more than 3 months

Patients with chronic neck pain might present with superimposed acute or subacute neck pain.

Epidemiology of Acute Neck Pain

Acute neck pain is more common in females than in males. It most commonly affects adults and there is a positive correlation between age and the incidence of neck pain. Increased body mass index and obesity are also associated with neck pain.

Several other risk factors identified are occupation, sedentary lifestyle, previous history of trauma to the neck, smoking, depression, genetic predisposition (like Turner and Down syndromes), concomitant lower back pain or rheumatic diseases.

Causes of Acute Neck Pain

The most common causes of neck pain can be summarized in the following:

  • Mechanical degeneration of the vertebrae or ligaments: this is more common in the elderly.
  • Posture: Occupation related inappropriate posture and repetitive motion are two important causes of neck pain in the young population.
  • Whiplash injuries: It is a major cause of acute neck pain in a quarter of patients with road traffic accidents.
  • Neck pain secondary to acute injuries like falls.
  • Cervical canal stenosis: Mostly caused by degenerative disease leading to obliteration of neural foramina.
  • Cervical radiculopathy: It generally involves the 7th and 8th cervical vertebrae/disc causing pain in the neck and shoulder region.
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome: Due to mechanical compression of brachial plexus.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis involving the cervical region, osteomyelitis, malignancies, and fibromyalgia can also cause neck pain.

Clinical Features of Acute Neck Pain

In most cases of neck pain, the pain is restricted to the posterior region of the neck. Radiation to the anterior side of the neck or the shoulder is dependent on the cause. Pain can also radiate to the forearm, arm, or the occiput. Generally, the pain intensifies with any passive or active movement and decreases with rest. The different characteristics of the pain can help in narrowing down the differential diagnosis.

The following table shows some important clues from the history that one can use to figure out the most likely cause of neck pain in the patient.

Etiology Clues from the history Associated symptoms
Fractured vertebrae, ligament tear or spinal cord injury Road traffic accident, whiplash injury, or fall from height Loss of consciousness, a low score on Glasgow coma scale, cognitive derangement, brain injuries like a subdural or an epidural hematoma, headaches, neurologic signs and symptoms
Atlantoaxial subluxation Rheumatoid arthritis or congenital conditions like Down syndrome Gait abnormalities, fatigability, restricted neck movement, high-grade spasticity, torticollis, clumsiness, sensory deficits, upper motor neuron signs

Physical Examination of Acute Neck Pain


Careful inspection of the patient’s posture on the standing position can reveal important findings like cervical lordosis, kyphosis, scoliosis, head forward posture and torticollis.


Palpation of important landmarks like cervical spine, joint facets, sternocleidomastoid muscle, and scalene muscle may give important clues for the most likely diagnosis.

The range of motion

Since there is a restriction of movement in case of neck pain, careful evaluation of a range of motion, mostly extension and flexion, should be undertaken. Lateral bending and even rotatory movement to assess the symmetry of motion can reveal a pathological condition. Sometimes, these motion tests aggravate the pain.

Neurological examination

A complete and thorough neurological examination is a must for all cases of neck pain. Muscle power, reflexes, measuring the sensory factors like touch, pain, and temperature can also give an idea about dermatomal involvement.

Two most important causes of neck pain are cervical radiculopathy and cervical myelopathy. These two conditions can be differentiated from each other by different tests.

Cervical radiculopathy 1.       Spurling test Rotation and lateral flexion of the neck causes pain on the affected side.
2.       Shoulder abduction test Abduction of the arm of the affected side causes radicular pain.
3.       Neck distraction test Holding the occiput and the chin when the examiner put axial traction to lift it then there is relief from the radicular pain.
4.       Valsalva maneuverer Forceful expiration with mouth and nose closed causes pain relief
Cervical myelopathy 1.       Lhemitte sign Passive flexion of neck produces sharp electric sensation down the arm and spine.
2.       Hoffmann sign Flexion and adduction of index finger and thumb produce a sudden movement of distal phalanx of the middle and fourth finger.
3.       Babinski sign Stimulation of the sole of the foot in a continuous manner produces dorsiflexion of fingers of the foot and, in extensive disease, it may produce dorsiflexion and abduction of other toes.
4.       Clonus Sudden dorsiflexion at wrist or ankle joint produces more than two repetitive movements at the specific joint.
5.       Upper limb tension test Pain is accentuated by certain movements like shoulder abduction, depression of scapula, an extension of the wrist, external rotation of arm etc.

Another condition which poses a diagnostic dilemma for the physician is thoracic outlet syndrome. It is commonly mistaken for cervical radiculopathy.

Thoracic outlet syndrome usually affects one side of the body. Females are more prone to be affected. It occurs in people older than 40 years of age. Most of the cases have a history of trauma or repetitive stress.

Imaging modalities and even the Doppler imaging technique are most helpful in evaluating pain of vascular origin, but it has limited use in neurogenic pain.

Several tests can be used to differentiate between radiculopathy and thoracic outlet syndrome (presented in the above table). There are specific tests for thoracic outlet syndrome also like the Adson test, elevated arm stress test etc.

Investigations of Acute Neck Pain

A clinical examination of the neck is not enough to diagnose the definite cause of acute neck pain because of the overlap in clinical manifestations between different diseases. Diagnostic imaging tests are considered a cornerstone in the diagnosis and management of a patient with neck pain.


Radiography of the cervical spine can assist in determining the area of degenerative disease. Anteroposterior view and lateral views are most useful in delineating the lesion. Traumatic fracture and congenital malformations can be ruled out through the odontoid view. Cervical canal stenosis or neural foramina obliteration and arthritic changes can be viewed best in oblique view. In degenerative diseases, the most common findings are the loss of disc space and osteophytes.

Computed Tomography (CT) scan of the cervical region

A CT scan is the most important mode of investigation in bony abnormalities and fractures as it can delineate the bony structure of the neck revealing different types of neck diseases as tuberculosis infection or neoplastic metastasis to the cervical vertebrae.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Cervical Spine MRI showing disc herniation

Image: “T1 weighted sagittal cervical spine MRI showing degenerative disc disease, osteophytes, and osteoarthritis of C4-C5” by Stillwaterising. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

MRI is the best method to assess the cervical spine as the soft tissue like the spinal cord, nerve roots and disc can be visualized. MRI is the most important diagnostic modality for patients with motor neuron disease, cervical radiculopathy or myelopathy.

Treatment of Acute Neck Pain

Treatment of specific conditions

While conservative therapy aims to minimize neck pain, specific treatment is usually indicated if the etiology of the pain can be determined.

Conservative therapy

Most of the cases with neck pain are treated with conservative therapy. Muscle strengthening exercises were found to provide some relief from the symptoms of neck pain. Such therapy is most helpful in patients with neck pain originating from mechanical causes such as a strain.  Physical therapy, in addition to home exercise and use of a hard cervical collar, can alleviate pain in most of the cases.

The alternative medicinal approach like spinal manipulation, chiropractic movement or manipulation can also provide short-term relief from symptoms. Conservative management must not be offered to patients with trauma, malignancies, systemic infection, neurological findings, or systemic inflammation.

Pharmacological therapy

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly used
  • Opioids can be used in severe cases of neck pain. Opioids can cause dependence
  • Muscle relaxants (cyclobenzaprine in a dose of 5—10 mg three times daily per oral) may be useful in certain cases
  • Acute pain or radicular symptoms can be treated by different neuropathic medications like gabapentin in a dose of ranging from 300—1200 mg three times a day
  • A short course of oral steroids like prednisolone can be considered for pain caused by an inflammatory condition
  • An injectable steroid can be used in cervical foramen or around facet joints

Surgical therapy

  • Surgery mostly depends on the condition or etiology
  • It is considered the last resort
  • More than 80 % of patients get some kind of benefit from the surgical approach, but careful evaluation of the risk to benefit ratio must be done before choosing this approach
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