If you are experiencing pain at the back of your neck, the chances are quite high that the problem is due to tired or overworked neck muscles. Strained neck muscles are another common cause of back of neck pain.
These causes of neck pain are usually easily treatable by a few days or weeks of rest. You may also possibly benefit from wearing a neck brace to provide support to the injured muscles to help them recover faster.
However, this does not mean that pain at the back of the neck can always be safely ignored, particularly if it is chronic. If your pain is accompanied by certain symptoms, such as loss of strength or feeling in the arms, get medical attention from your doctor. The same is true of a “shooting pain” that goes down from the neck and through the shoulder or arms. This is because this pain could be caused by compression or irritation of one of the nerves from the cervical part of the spine responsible for supplying the arm. This could, for example, be caused by wear and tear (arthritic) changes in that part of the spine.
In this article, we will examine the possible causes of pain behind your neck. We will also go into some detail on the signs that your neck pain may be indicative of a more serious problem than a muscle injury.
What Are The Most Common Causes Of Back Of Neck Pain?
These may include the following:
Strained, Tired Or Weak Neck Muscles
As mentioned above, this is by far the most common cause of back of neck pain. It is important to remember that your neck is responsible for supporting the weight of your head – possibly the heaviest part of the body. The flexible nature of the neck increases the possibility of injury. This is particularly the case when it is held in a position that puts undue strain on it.
In some cases we can adopt poor postural habits that can increase the strain on the neck. These can in turn make a muscle or soft tissue injury of the neck more likely.
For example, frequently reading in bed, particularly when lying on your back, can cause strained neck muscles. Lying in bed while watching television is another activity that can cause similar problems.
Many of us tend to grit or grind our teeth while sleeping, particularly if we are stressed. This is a sleep disorder known as bruxism and a painful neck is often one of its side effects.
Modern life has made devices like smartphones and desktop computers ubiquitous in our daily routines. Unfortunately, unless we invest in ergonomic furniture, it is easy for us to spend hours hunched over their screens. Over time, these postural habits can lead to pain behind the neck.
We have discussed elsewhere on this site how a herniated disk can can lead to pinched nerve roots and then to back pain. If compressed or irritated nerve roots cause arm pain, pins and needles and/or numbness, these symptoms can often be relieved by medications from the group of tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline. If this problem occurs in the upper spine (cervical) area, it can also lead to back of neck pain.
Just as with other forms of arthritis such as knee osteoarthritis, this is a consequence of wearing of the neck facet joints. These are the joints between the spinal vertebrae. In a healthy spine, the vertebrae are prevented from direct contact from each other by layers of cartilage tissue. The cartilage covers each vertebra and plays a cushioning role between adjacent vertebrae.
As we age, the cartilage tends to wear away, with the result that the spinal vertebrae start to rub directly against each other. When this happens to the cervical vertebrae in the upper spine area, it causes pain at the back of the neck. Together with the pain, you may experience diminished neck range of motion due to a stiff neck.
Over time, as the vertebrae rub directly against each other, the body reacts by forming additional bone growths between the vertebrae. These are called bone spurs. As they develop, they can press on the nerve roots that emerge from the spine to supply various parts of the body.
If this happens, back of neck pain, together with numbness or tingling in the arms and legs, can appear.
Bone spurs can also press on the spinal cord that runs through the center of the spine. The result can be a form of spinal stenosis that causes pain at the back of the neck. A proportion of cases of spinal stenosis will require decompression surgery to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord.
Back of neck pain or numbness in the arms and legs can also be caused by herniated disks.
Just as with bone spurs, damage to the disks that cushion the spinal vertebrae from each other can cause pressure on the spinal nerves. The result can be back of neck pain and possibly numbness in the arms or legs.
The majority of cases of neck pain due to disc herniation can be treated conservatively. Surgical intervention is not often required.
Neck pain can also be the consequence of accidental injury. Probably the most common cause of this type of injury is a motor vehicle accident.
Accidents involving rear end collisions are likely to cause whiplash injuries. The head of an occupant of the rear ended vehicle can be violently jerked backward and then forward. This sudden movement can result in severely strained neck muscles that require weeks or months of rehabilitation.
In a few cases, back of neck pain can be due to a serious disease such as meningitis or cancer. The patient with meningitis is likely to have other signs and symptoms like a high temperature, headache and being unable to tolerate bright lights (photophobia).These are life threatening conditions. If you suspect that your neck pain is not due to one of the above causes, we advise you to seek medical advice right away.
Pain that occurs in the neck together with a loss of bladder or bowel control should be viewed as requiring especially urgent attention.