When to seek immediate medical attention for neck pain

For most neck pain, it's okay to try self-care strategies before seeking medical help. However, if your neck pain is so severe you can't sit still, or if it is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, contact a medical professional right away:

Fever, headache, and neck stiffness. This triad of symptoms might indicate bacterial meningitis, an infection of the spinal cord and brain covering that requires prompt treatment with antibiotics.

Pain traveling down one arm, especially if the arm or hand is weak, numb, or tingling. This might indicate that a herniated cervical disc is pressing on a nerve.

Loss of bowel or bladder control. This might indicate pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots, needing immediate attention.

Extreme instability. If you can suddenly tilt your head forward or back much farther than usual, it might indicate a fracture or torn ligaments. This usually occurs only after significant impact or injury, and is more likely to be detected by your doctor or on an x-ray than by your own perception.

Persistent swollen glands in the neck. Infection or a tumor can cause swollen glands and neck pain.

Chest pain or pressure. A heart attack or inflamed heart muscle can cause neck pain along with more classic heart symptoms.

For additional tips on preventing neck pain as well as ways to treat and cure it, read Neck Pain, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

Image: VioletaStoimenova/Getty Images

Disclaimer:
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.