What could cause chronic neck pain?

A fellow caregiver asked...

I have, for the past five years, had a problem with constant neck stiffness and pain. It lasts for about a week then goes away only to come back when either I make a fast movement or I just wake up unable to move my neck. The pain is excruciating. It starts on the neck and radiates though my back. Could this be a sign of something more serious, or is it that I just have bad luck! It has happened often, maybe about five to seven times a year. I do not recall having had any falls or anything of that sort that could have trigger this either.

Expert Answer

Jennifer Serafin, N.P. is a registered nurse and geriatric nurse practitioner at the Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco.

Most likely you have a muscle spasm from tension in your neck and shoulders, as your pain tends to come and go.  Someone with an injury or serious problem with the cervical spine (neck) would not get better and would have the pain daily.  Tension in your neck and shoulders is very painful and can very much effect your quality of life.  I would recommend rest, heat (use a heating pad) for about 20 minutes several times a day, and pain medication (tylenol or ibuprofen work well) while the pain occurs.  To help prevent pain, exercise and do stretches of the neck and shoulders to help keep them limber.  Massage helps to keep the muscles from getting too tense.  Try to manage your stress, as many people get neck and back pain from too much stress.

One last thought: make sure that you are not working on your computer for too long without moving your neck and shoulders.  Many people will stare at a computer screen for hours without moving, putting constant stress on your neck!