Can Neck Pain Be a Sign of Something Serious?

Yes, neck pain can be a sign of something serious like cancer, multiple sclerosis, or neuropathy,  but it’s rare. Most of the time neck pain is just that… neck pain. If you give it a bit of time, work on a few neck exercises and stretches, and reduce the inflammation it will go away in a few days to a few weeks. It’s when the neck pain stays for weeks and months at a time and keeps coming back that it might be a warning sign of something more serious. 


The “good” kind of neck pain…


If you’re going to get neck pain (and almost everyone does at some point in their life) then the best kind to get is… the kind that goes away in a few days. The kind that doesn’t cause any headaches or make it difficult to swallow. The kind that doesn’t make you feel dizzy or make your fingers feel numb. 


The neck is a complicated piece of anatomy with lots of stuff happening in a small amount of space, something is bound to get a little kinked up from time to time. There are 26 muscles, 7 vertebrae, 16 nerve roots, and loads of blood vessels that have to carry the 10-12 lb skull around all day.


If your neck pain started after you were doing something physical like bowling, or gardening, or painting your garage then you probably strained a muscle and the pain will go away in a week or so. If you get neck pain from time to time and you have a job that puts your neck in awkward positions (like a plumber, dental hygienist, or electrician) then you might have have some misaligned vertebra or arthritis that needs some attention, but it’s not a “serious” problem. 


The “bad” kind of neck pain…


If you frequently get neck pain andheadaches, swallowing difficulty, balance problems, or numbness then you’ll want to get that checked out by a doctor, like soon. It’s probably nothing to worry about, but there’s a chance it’s a sign of something serious and you don’t want to ignore it. 


Neck pain and headaches together can be a sign of blood pressure problems, autonomic nervous system problems, or a space occupying lesion (tumor). As mentioned before there’s lots of stuff in the neck (muscles, nerves, blood vessels, etc) and if the problem in the neck starts to cause problems in another area (your head) then it’s time to find out exactly what it is and not assume everything is fine. 


Neck pain and difficulty swallowing can be a sign of thyroid problems. Sometimes the thyroid gland can swell up and press on the throat making it difficult to swallow. And sometimes the vertebrae near the top of the neck are out of alignment which can affect the nerves that control the swallowing muscles. Either way… trouble swallowing is nothing to mess around with and should be evaluated by a doctor.


Neck pain with balance problems or numbness means that your nervous system is being affected. The nerves that allow you to move your arms and hands and feel things that you touch all come from your neck. If something is pressing on them then you’ll start to notice problems in your arms and hands. And the area of your brain that helps you keep your balance is at the top of the neck (brain stem) and it can be affected by problems in the upper neck and/or a tumor. Whenever you experience frequent or chronic numbness or balance problems be sure to get checked out by a doctor. 


Which type of doctor is best for diagnosing serious neck problems?


If you suspect serious problems with your neck and the other stuff in that area (blood vessels and nerves) you’ll want to see a doctor that has a lot of experience in that area and has access to advanced imaging like x-rays, MRI’s, or CT scans. The best choices are medical neurologist, orthopedic doctor, or upper cervical chiropractor