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Neck pain: causes, risks, tips, exercises

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 323 views

Neck pain is caused by tension and cramps in the neck muscles. The complaints usually also extend to the back of the head or the entire shoulder-arm area. Neck tension caused by staying in the wrong position for a long time or a cool breeze is harmless. But serious, degenerative changes in the spine sometimes also cause neck pain. What to do about the complaints? How do you track down the cause? How can you prevent neck pain? You can read the answers here.

quick overview

  • Description: Pain in the neck that may radiate to the head, shoulder, or arm; stiff neck with limited mobility, sometimes numbness/tingling in the fingers
  • Causes: including muscle tension (mental, from drafts, poor posture, strain), injuries ( whiplash , vertebral fractures), physical wear and tear (e.g. arthrosis , herniated disc, osteoporosis ), referred pain, tumors, rheumatic diseases, fibromyalgia, Scheuermann’s disease , scoliosis
  • Diagnostics: Patient consultation (anamnesis), physical examination of the mobility of the neck and peculiarities in the physique, imaging procedures, possibly neurological examination
  • Therapy: e.g. B. Injections of anesthetics, acupuncture, physiotherapy , manual medicine with chiropractic and osteopathy
  • Tips: actively relaxing, keeping your neck warm, strengthening your neck muscles/ back exercises , massage, using a neck pillow, adjusting your chair and PC monitor, doing relaxation exercises in between

Neck pain: description

The neck area consists of innumerable nerves, many muscles and a total of seven vertebral bodies – a complex construct that forgives us quite a few (postural) sins. As soon as neck pain sets in, the neck area has usually been overloaded for a long time.

Neck pain is usually the result of tense muscles in the neck area. The neck reacts with painful cramps to staying in a bad posture for a long time, cold drafts or lying down incorrectly. Even in psychologically stressful situations, our body tenses up. For example, lovesickness can trigger neck pain.

Neck pain is rarely limited to the neck area alone. Tension in the neck often spreads to the shoulders and head. Neck pain can also extend into the arm and even cause numbness in the fingers, for example when it radiates along and irritates nerves. Sometimes headaches can also be attributed to neck tension.

A stiff neck occurs when neck tension severely restricts the mobility of the head and turning to the right, left, up or down is only possible with severe pain.


Almost everyone suffers from back pain at least once in their life . According to studies, about 40 percent of those affected have pain in the neck and shoulder girdle area. Neck pain caused by work is the most common.

Acute and chronic neck pain

Acute neck pain goes away after a few days to three weeks and is usually harmless. Triggers can be overtime at the computer in a neck-unfriendly posture or psychological stress such as stress.

Chronic neck pain lasts longer than twelve weeks. They are usually signs of physical wear and tear. If you don’t do anything about it and maintain a habitual, incorrect posture for years, consequential damage can develop. These include:

  • Cervical syndrome ( cervical spine syndrome ): This is where neck pain occurs, which can radiate into the shoulder and arm without other nerve disorders. It is also possible that the neck tension is so severe that it is impossible to move the head. This is popularly known as a stiff neck.
  • Cervicobrachial syndrome (neck-arm syndrome): The neck pain radiates to the shoulder and arm. In addition, signs of paralysis or sensory disturbances can occur in the hands.
  • Migraines and headaches : They are common consequences of chronic neck pain.
  • Inflammation in the shoulder : It can be caused by resting and avoiding painful movement in chronic neck pain.
  • Intervertebral disc problems : the tense muscles in particular cannot be stressed as much. Loads must therefore be borne more by the vertebral joints. Herniated discs are thus favored by neck pain.
  • Difficulty breathing : The stiff neck can also extend to the chest, resulting in shallow, strained breathing .

Neck pain: causes and possible diseases

The neck is unique in its position: it supports the heavy head and is very flexible. A fine balance to keep. All too often, however, we make that very difficult for the neck: we expose it to a cold draft or sleep and work in a position that is unfavorable for the neck. Bad posture like this is often the cause of neck pain. In these cases, they are muscular. Due to the overload, the neck muscles harden and shorten, which is painful to feel (especially when pressure is applied to the relevant area). Chronic neck tension, on the other hand, can indicate changes in the skeleton or the intervertebral discs.

Below you can find out more about the possible triggers of neck pain:

muscle tension

  • Poor posture : If you keep adopting the same incorrect position at work, while sleeping or during sports, muscle tension is the result.
  • Psyche : Emotional tension also manifests itself physically in cramped muscles. Tension in the neck is therefore often caused by stress at work, fear or relationship problems.
  • Colds & flu : The typical headaches and body aches associated with a severe cold or flu are also caused by the muscles.
  • Drafts : When cold drafts hit the muscles, the muscles subconsciously cramp – a stiff neck is often the result when cold wind meets a sweaty neck.
  • Muscle Strains : The neck has a wide range of motion, making it particularly prone to uncontrolled, sudden movements and strains that lead to neck pain.
  • Wry neck ( torticollis ): Excessive muscle activity in the neck area leads to uncontrollable muscle tension and a crooked head posture.


  • Whiplash : In the case of acceleration injuries, muscle tension and strains occur as a result of an abrupt head movement (especially in rear-end collisions). Possible consequences include severe neck pain, headaches, dizziness , drowsiness, unsteady gait or blurred vision . Chronic problems with the throat are also possible.
  • Vertebral fractures : Extreme caution should be exercised here with first aid measures, since paraplegia from the neck can result!

physical wear and tear

  • Herniated disc : In the cervical spine , herniated discs occur less frequently, but are particularly possible as a result of long-term incorrect posture or accidents.
  • Arthrosis : The age-related joint wear increases significantly due to static incorrect posture. Due to the special anatomy of the vertebral bodies in the neck, “uncovertebral arthrosis” is common, a wear and tear of the so-called hemi-joints, i.e. the joints in the cervical spine that are unable to move.
  • Spondylosis : Older people in particular are affected by the stiffening of the spine due to changes in the intervertebral discs. In addition to a stiff neck, there are also stabbing pains and restricted mobility.
  • Chondrosis : Age-related wear and tear of the intervertebral discs is also possible in the neck area.
  • Cervical spinal canal stenosis : In the area of ​​the cervical spine, there is a narrowing of the spinal canal in which the spinal cord runs. Typical complaints are neck pain, numbness in the arm and even signs of paralysis.
  • Cervicocephalic syndrome (Barré-Lieou syndrome): Signs of wear and tear or changes in the cervical spine cause neck pain, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision or ringing in the ears. The mobility of the throat is often restricted, and swallowing disorders can also occur.
  • Osteoporosis : Women who have been through the menopause in particular suffer from bone loss, which can be felt throughout the body, possibly including pain in the neck.
  • Rickets : Bone growth disorders are caused by a vitamin D deficiency . The entire musculoskeletal system is weakened, which can manifest itself in neck pain, among other things.

other causes

  • Meningitis : Meningitis is usually caused by bacteria and often manifests itself in stiff neck, headache, fever , confusion, impaired consciousness and nausea. Typically, the chin can no longer be bent towards the chest . If there are signs of meningitis, the emergency doctor should be called immediately, as there is a risk of permanent brain damage.
  • Referred pain : Diseases of internal organs such as the heart , liver , gallbladder or stomach can show up as pain in the neck. This is probably possible because certain parts of the body are supplied by nerve roots from the spinal cord. But muscle hardening that is tender to pressure can also cause this referred pain.
  • Tumors/ metastases in the neck area : Thyroid or vertebral growths can result in a stiff neck. Lymph nodes are often enlarged and palpable.
  • Rheumatic diseases : Rheumatoid arthritis and Morbus Bechterew , but also degenerative arthrosis can cause a stiff neck and poor posture.
  • Abscesses : Purulent swellings in the throat can lead to a stiff throat – but not only: The swelling also threatens shortness of breath and suffocation ! Therefore, abscesses should be treated immediately by a doctor.
  • Inflammation of the intervertebral disc (discitis): Inflammation of the intervertebral disc and the surrounding vertebral bodies is rare but does occur. It can cause severe, persistent neck pain. The cause here is usually a bacterial infection or rheumatic disease.
  • Scoliosis (crooked back): A misalignment of the spine is noticeable on the whole back, including the neck area. Sometimes it can only be treated surgically.
  • Scheuermann’s disease : Here, patients develop a pronounced hunchback, which causes problems in the neck area, among other things.
  • Fibromyalgia : This chronic pain disorder is associated with chronic pain in the neck and other areas of the body, pronounced fatigue , loss of concentration and sleep disorders .
  • Vertebral deformities : A rare cause of neck pain can be Kippel-Feil syndrome, where the cervical vertebrae are fused together. The occurrence of bone thickening of the vertebral bodies ( Paget’s disease ) is also rare.

Neck pain diagnosis: when do you need to see a doctor?

A stiff neck is often the result of cramped and tense muscles. Although the neck pain is unpleasant, it usually goes away on its own within a few days or weeks – at least if the cause of the tension (wrong pillow, non-ergonomic desk posture, etc.) is eliminated.

However, if the symptoms keep coming back or don’t go away, you should see a doctor to find out the cause. The point of contact for occasional neck pain is your family doctor or orthopedist . If the neck pain is accompanied by tingling and numbness in the arms and hands, possibly also by slight paralysis, you should consult a neurologist . This could be a cervical spine syndrome (cervical spine syndrome). These symptoms often also occur at night during sleep – those affected are then awakened by numb limbs or tingling in their fingers.

If signs of meningitis appear, you should call an ambulance immediately . Such signs are:

  • fever, cramps and headache
  • Pain when bending head towards chest
  • paralysis and impaired consciousness

Neck pain: what does the doctor do?

By describing the symptoms and information about your lifestyle in the anamnesis interview , you provide the doctor with initial clues as to the cause of the pain, for example poor posture. A physical examination follows . The focus is on the mobility of the neck and head, peculiarities in the physique and the occurrence of pain when tapping or touching. Imaging methods such as X -rays , nuclear spin tomography (magnetic resonance imaging, MRT) or computer tomography are also often used(CT) meaningful and helpful. If there are signs of nerve irritation or nerve damage (such as numbness or tingling in the arms and hands, paralysis), a neurological examination is necessary.

Neck Pain Therapy

In the case of acute neck pain or degenerative wear and tear diseases, there are various therapies to make the stiff neck more flexible and relieve the pain:

  • Injection procedure: irritated nerve roots are injected with local anesthetics. This cuts off the pain pathway to the brain . If the pain subsides, the muscles in this area relax. Neural therapy is also common .
  • Acupuncture : The fine needles – placed in the right places – get the energy channels flowing again and have a pain-relieving effect.
  • Physiotherapy : The physiotherapist relieves existing neck tension with massages or certain hand movements (e.g. trigger point therapy). In physiotherapy, patients learn exercises to build up the neck muscles. Long-term success with poor posture can often only be achieved in this way.
  • Manual medicine : Joint blockages and tension are released by means of chiropractic and osteopathy.

Neck pain: what you can do yourself

Most often, the cause of a stiff neck is improper posture or movement. For example, stressed people often assume an unhealthy position by hunching their shoulders and trying to unconsciously make themselves invisible. To take targeted action against a stiff neck, you should follow a few rules:

  • Active relaxation : With progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson, every muscle in the body is consciously relaxed after ten seconds of intense tension. Since the mental tension shows up physically as muscle tension, this technique also calms the mind.
  • Keeping your neck warm : Warmth from a hot bath, a thick woolen scarf, or a hot-water bottle loosens muscles and relieves pain. Heat patches that keep the neck warm for hours also work particularly well.
  • Avoid drafts : A cold draft or cold often triggers neck pain. If you are sensitive, you should protect your neck with a light cloth, even in summer.
  • Sports : Endurance sports such as running, hiking , yoga or swimming (please only crawl or backstroke here, since the head is unfavorably raised when swimming the breaststroke) keep the entire body fit and also have a good effect against stress.
  • Back school : Targeted strengthening of the back and neck muscles is the key to permanently preventing neck pain. In a special training session, you will learn how to sit, bend and bend in a way that is easy on your back and build up the stressed muscles. Don’t be surprised if you get sore muscles in your back afterwards.
  • Massage : A gentle massage, preferably by a physical therapist, can literally knead away tension in the shoulders and neck.
  • Sleep properly : A neck pillow or a back-friendly mattress is a good protection against neck pain.
  • Medications : Painkillers relieve muscle tension by eliminating pain. At the same time, they also inhibit inflammation in this area. Suitable preparations contain the anti-inflammatory active ingredient diclofenac or ibuprofen .

Neck pain: tips for the workplace

Sitting cramped in one position for hours and staring at the computer – that can’t be healthy. Tension and pain are typical consequences of this one-sided strain and poor posture. Neck pain is a signal from the body to change something about the current situation. To do this, you should design your workplace as ergonomically as possible:

  • Chair : The office chair should adapt to your body and not the other way around. An upright sitting position, with both feet hip-width apart on the floor and your arms at right angles to the tabletop, is considered a healthy sitting position.
  • Monitor : There should be a distance of at least 50 centimeters between your eyes and the screen to avoid a cramped posture. The height is best when you look down slightly when sitting upright.
  • Keyboard and Mouse : Forearms should be level with the keyboard. Both computer mice and keyboards are available in special, ergonomically optimized versions. Overall, the arms and hands should work as close to the body as possible to prevent neck pain and shoulder tension.
  • Headset instead of telephone : Anyone who makes a lot of calls and squeezes the receiver between their shoulder and ear to have both hands free provokes neck tension. A headset with which the head remains upright is more advantageous here.

Prevent neck tension: exercises

Build regular short breaks into your daily work routine to stretch and change positions on your office chair frequently. Movement loosens the muscles. That’s why you shouldn’t shy away from activities that you can do standing up, or the occasional trip to the copier, etc. On the contrary!

In addition, you can loosen up the neck muscles a little with specific exercises:

  • Relaxed Shoulders : Raise your shoulders on an inhale and let them drop on a deep exhale. Repeat the exercise five times.
  • Swing while standing : Stand hip-width apart in your office chair and swing your arms to the right and left without moving your shoulders or upper body. Repeat the swing about ten times.
  • Neck Stretch : While standing, gently bend your head to the left while your right hand extends downward until you feel a stretch in the neck on the right. Now hold the position for ten seconds and then repeat the exercise on the left side.
  • Straighten your rounded back again : Place your palms against your forehead and now – against a slight resistance of your hands – bend your head down until your chin rests on your chest. From this position, clasp your hands behind your head and slowly raise your head again.
  • Finish : Finally, loosen your shoulders in a circular motion and shake out your arms.

The more often you take small breaks in everyday (office) life, the better it is. You should do such exercises to prevent neck pain at least once a day (around lunchtime).

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