What Can Cause Neck Pain? - PT Effect

What Can Cause Neck Pain?

Experiencing ongoing neck pain can be a sign that something else is wrong, or you need to make a change to your daily life.
Read Time: 4 minutes
Nov 14, 2022

Neck pain is an incredibly common ailment in America, affecting about one in three people at least once a year. Recurring neck pain may be a sign of an underlying problem. Sometimes the problem can be a simple fix to your daily routine or your posture. However, some causes of neck pain are more severe.

Types of Neck Pain

There are different kinds of neck pain that you can experience. The first distinction is where you are feeling your neck pain. The main two categories are:

  • Axial neck pain: Felt mostly in the neck
  • Radicular neck pain: Also felt in other areas such as the shoulders or arms

You can also describe your neck pain by how long you’ve been experiencing it. The two main categories are:

  • Acute: Lasting for a few days up to six weeks
  • Chronic: Lasts longer than three months

A woman grabbing her neck, highlighted in red, in pain.

Common Causes of Neck Pain

Because neck pain is so common, there are many different underlying causes, many of which are easily treatable.

Tech Neck

Tech neck, or text neck, refers to the strain many people get in their necks after utilizing their phones or computers for extended periods of time. We often look down at our smartphones and look down at our computer screens when they’re placed on a desk or a table. Holding our neck in this position for too long can cause strain, which can worsen over time.

Sleeping Position

The way you sleep and the pillow you use might be causing you neck pain as well. A good pillow should hold your head and neck at a neutral angle, about perpendicular to your shoulders. Additionally, if you sleep on your stomach, you might be causing stress to your neck. Sleeping on your back or side can help alleviate some of the pain.

Poor Posture

A woman stooping her neck to use her phone.

If you hunch forward or don’t sit up straight, you might be causing stress to your neck. The positioning of your keyboard, monitor, and chair can also affect your posture if you spend lots of time at your desk or in an office. A weak core can also lead to poor posture and additional neck strain.

Physical Strain

If your neck pain started suddenly after straining or injuring yourself while playing sports or exercising, that may be the culprit. Doing repetitive actions with your neck might also cause strain. For example, turning your head to the side to breathe while swimming can cause pain. Or, if your job requires repeated movements, such as looking back and forth on a grocery belt as a cashier, you may cause additional pain.


A businessman in an office rubs his neck in pain.

Mental stress can manifest in pain in our neck. We might not realize how stress presents itself physically in our bodies until we experience severe pain. You can work on this with a mental health professional or a physical therapist.


Smoking cigarettes can damage the cervical discs in your neck, quickening the aging process and leading to a higher chance of injury or stress between vertebrae. If you are a regular smoker, quitting might help with some of your neck pain.

Other Underlying Causes of Neck Pain

While there are many common, fairly benign causes of neck pain, there are some that are more chronic or health-related.


Accidents and injuries can lead to neck pain. One of the most common neck-related injuries is whiplash. This occurs when a forced movement of the head or neck causes a rebound in the opposite direction. Whiplash can be very painful. Other accidents and injuries can also affect the neck and the spinal cord.

A vector image describes how whiplash occurs.

Age-Related Diseases

As we grow older, we often lose strength. This can cause our posture to worsen, which can lead to more neck pain. But aging-related diseases can also cause neck pain. These include:


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, sometimes called “wear and tear” arthritis. Cervical osteoarthritis or cervical spondylosis refers specifically to arthritis in the neck, which causes pain in the area to worsen throughout the day.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal cord. When the space inside the backbone is too small, it can put pressure on the spinal cord and the nerves that travel up to the neck. Surgery is sometimes needed to alleviate symptoms.

Herniated Disc

A cervical herniated disc can cause radial neck pain, numbness in the hands and arms, and weakness. Sometimes herniated discs are the result of an injury. Typically, they can be treated with over-the-counter pain medication and physical therapy.

A medical diagram shows a herniated disc compared to a normal disc.

Pinched Nerve

When a nerve has too much pressure on it from surrounding tissue, it can become pinched and cause a lot of pain. They become increasingly common in older age, but can also occur due to an injury. Similarly to herniated discs, they can be treated with OTC meds and PT.


The viral infection meningitis inflames the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, which can lead to neck pain. Other symptoms include headache, fever, and light sensitivity. A diagnostic test can detect the virus.

A diagram listing the symptoms of meningitis: fever, neck pain, joint pain, seizures, vomiting, sleepiness, light sensitivity, and headache.

Tumors, Cysts, and Bone Spurs

In rare circumstances, neck pain may be caused by a growth in the neck such as a tumor, cyst, or bone spur. Cervical spine tumors can cause unrelenting pain, decreased range of motion, and neck stiffness. See a doctor if you feel any new firm lumps in your neck.

Depending on how long you’ve been experiencing neck pain and where you are experiencing it, some causes might be more likely than others. If you are concerned about your neck pain, consider seeing a doctor as soon as possible. A physical therapist can help you manage your pain and build your strength to prevent future pain.

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Mark Shulman

Dr. Mark Shulman

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), FAAOMPT, COMT, CSCS


Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists.

Mark Shulman

Dr. Allison McKay

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), PRPC


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