Neck problems

Neck problems can cause a range of symptoms including:

  • pain (which may go down your arm)
  • stiffness
  • pins and needles or numbness in your arm or hand

In many cases, new or flare-up of long-standing neck problems should begin to settle within 6 weeks without the need to see a healthcare professional.

When to seek help

Urgent advice: Phone 111 if:

  • there has been a new, significant trauma within the last 7 days, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the head or neck area
  • feel numbness, pins and needles or weakness that is worsening in one or both arms
  • have problems with your balance or walking since your neck pain started
  • develop blurred vision, ringing in your ears or dizziness that doesn't go away within 48 hours

Non-urgent advice: Contact your GP, or phone 111 if your GP practice is closed, if:

  • you also feel generally unwell
  • you have neck pain that starts when you're ill with other problems - such as rheumatoid arthritis or cancer
  • you feel unsteady, clumsy or losing your balance when walking
  • if your neck pain is associated with a headache

What causes neck problems?

Neck problems are normally caused by an accident or normal age-related changes. They can also start for no obvious reason.

Neck problems are rarely due to any serious disease or damage.

Can neck pain cause problems anywhere else?

Often neck problems can be accompanied by pain in your upper back or arms.

Pain sensations can include hot, burning, shooting, or stabbing pain in your shoulders or into one or both of your arms.

Neck pain can also cause headaches.

Self-help

There are a number of things you can do to help your neck problem.

Keeping your neck moving is an essential part of your treatment and recovery.

How to get moving

After a neck problem you should:

  • keep moving, even if you move slowly at first
  • move your neck for short periods every hour
  • change positions regularly where ever you are - try to find a position that reduces any pains you may have in your neck and/or arm(s)
  • try to stay active but remember not to carry out activities which aggravate any pains you may have in your neck and/or arm(s)
  • do whatever you normally would and stay at, or return to work - this is important and the best way to get better
  • try to use one supportive pillow as too many can put strain on your neck

Use of a collar isn't recommended.

pillow neck posture 800
A supportive pillow could help your neck pain.

Benefits of keeping active

Keeping active's the single best thing you can do for your general health.

Being physically active can:

  • maintain your current levels of fitness – even if you have to modify what you normally do, any activity is better than none
  • keep your other muscles and joints strong and flexible
  • prevent a recurrence of the problem
  • help you aim for a healthy body weight

Avoid sports or heavy lifting until you have less discomfort and good movement. Remember to warm up before sports.

It's beneficial to do specific exercises that can help in your recovery. They may be challenging at the beginning so just do what you can and try to build it up over time.

Exercises to help with neck problems.

Pain treatments

The following can help to reduce the pain:

  • pain medication - this can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery
  • heat or ice packs

More about taking painkillers.

Treating with ice or heat

Remember to never place ice or heat directly on your skin. Use a barrier, such as a towel, to protect your skin from a burn. How long you use ice as a treatment can depend on the painful area but generally up to 15 minutes leaving a few hours between treatments.

You should stop treating the area with ice or heat and seek advice from a medical professional if you notice an increase in redness, discolouration or blistering of the skin.

If you have any issues with circulation or sensation, you shouldn't use ice or heat as a treatment for neck pain.

Staying positive

It’s easy to start worrying about all the possible things that could be wrong, but research has shown that most neck pain settles with time.

Keeping as active as possible helps you to cope better and get back to your usual activities more quickly.

Work

It's recommended you stay at or return to work as quickly as possible during your recovery. This is important and usually the best way to get better. You don't need to be pain and symptom-free to return to work.

You should speak to your employer to see if you need any workplace adjustments.

Help and support

Following this advice, you should see gradual improvements over time.

You should see the biggest change in your symptoms within the first couple of weeks. Most problems should have improved within 6 weeks.

If your neck problem hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Find out how to access MSK services in your area.

Last updated:
10 August 2022