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Neck pain: Causes and treatment

Dr. Mina SafainDo you have persistent neck pain? Not sure what might be causing it or when to see a doctor? We asked Mina Safain, MD, a neurosurgeon who sees patients both at the Spine Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and at MelroseWakefield Hospital north of the city for answers to some of the most common questions about neck pain. 

What are common causes of neck pain?

Neck pain is most often caused by muscular strain or sprain. Secondly, disc herniations can cause neck pain but most often when they compress a nerve they cause shooting arm pain. Less common causes include spinal fractures, infections, and tumors. 

When should I see a physician about my neck pain?

Neck pain is quite common and most often does not require a visit to the hospital or your doctor.

That said, neck pain associated with shooting arm pain that is unrelenting should be evaluated by your primary care doctor. "Red flag" signs that should be evaluated urgently by a doctor or emergency room include any sudden or new onset of weakness, severe numbness, issues with your balance, or issues with your bladder or bowel control. In addition, severe unrelenting neck pain not taken away by over the counter medication should be evaluated by your primary care doctor or local hospital

What is causing this pain?

Neck pain can be caused by a variety of different issues including muscle spasm, strain or sprain.  Compression of spinal nerves or the spinal cord. Fractures, infections, or tumors of the spine can also cause severe neck pain. 

How can neck pain be treated/ prevented?

The most important thing to remember is that most neck pain can be treated without surgery or intervention.  The goal of early treatment of neck pain is to diagnose the cause of neck pain and then direct therapy to this cause.  Treatments can include physical therapy, pain medications, injection therapy, and minimally invasive surgery. 

How does Tufts MC treat neck pain?

We take a comprehensive treatment strategy at Tufts MC with experts from pain management, physiatryphysical therapy, and surgery.  When surgery is needed we aim to provide the most minimally invasive way of fixing the problem and relieving the patient of pain and/or spinal nerve or cord compression.