But, since the neck is less protected than the rest of the spine, it is prone to injuries, such as sprains and strains. Some are forceful enough to cause more prolonged and more serious pain and disability, such as with a herniated disc or a neck fracture. Neck pain can also result from a wide variety of diseases and disorders, including inflammations and infections, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia.
Whiplash is a common type of neck sprain that results when the head is whipped quickly forward and backward beyond its normal range of motion, as can happen during a motor vehicle accident or while diving or playing contact sports.
Prolonged overuse of the neck muscles or a sudden violent injury to the muscles and tendons in the neck can cause a strain, which can vary in intensity from a slightly pulled muscle to actual tearing or rupture of the same or tendon fibers. If one or more ligaments in the neck are violently overstretched and they tear, a sprain results. If the sprain is severe enough to separate a ligament completely from the bone, the patient has a total loss of function in the injured area and might need surgery to repair the damage.
Neck PainWhen the pain of a stiff neck worsens with the head bent forward, it can also be a symptom of meningitis, an inflammation of the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord accompanied by high fever and severe headache. Neck pain is also common with other viral and bacterial infections, such as colds and flu, because the lymph glands in the neck swell and become tender as part of the body’s process of fighting infection.
Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints, and when it affects the bones in the neck, it causes stiffness and pain in the neck that worsens over time. Of the many types of arthritis, two that commonly involve the neck are osteoarthritis, most often affecting older people and caused by wear and tear on the bones of the neck over time, and rheumatoid arthritis, which causes painful inflammation, swelling, and deformity of the joints in the neck.
Sudden injuries can also cause a herniated (slipped) disc, in which the cushioning pads of cartilage between each vertebra bulge outward or tear, causing severe pain in the neck. Trauma that is even more violent can cause dislocation, where the bones in the neck no longer touch each other, or fractures, when a bone in the neck is broken. These are serious injuries that can damage the spinal cord, leading to paralysis and even death.
Infection of the thyroid gland, called thyroiditis, can cause pain in the front of the neck where the gland is located, while osteoporosis, a gradual weakening of the bones due to a lack of calcium, can cause aches in the bones of the neck. Fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes a wide variety of muscle aches, pains, and weaknesses, often begins with pain and stiffness in the neck.