Cervicalgia (pain in the neck): Causes, symptoms, treatment, and exercise tips

cervicalgiaIf you have cervicalgia, then you have a pain in the neck that does not radiate outwards to upper extremities. While in many cases, cervicalgia neck pain can be minor and go away in a matter of days, there are those who suffer from constant discomfort with this condition.

The term cervicalgia comes from the Latin term “cervic,” which means neck, and the Greek word “algos,” which means pain. The neck is part of your cervical spine, and cervicalgia is a way to describe the intense pain and discomfort that comes with this type of pain in the neck. Research shows that for some reason, more women than men suffer from cervicalgia.


The cervical spine is a complex structure that supports the head. It is made up of small vertebrae, discs, joints, nerve roots, muscles, and ligaments. This complex and flexible system means that the area is prone to injury and pain.

Having neck pain can slow you down. It can impact your work and other day-to-day activities. Some people are lucky and the symptoms resolve on their own in a few days.
Others may not be so fortunate, and their severe neck pain can lead to other problems, such as dizziness and frequent headaches. Cervicalgia that doesn’t go away and requires medical attention.

Types of neck pain (cervicalgia)

It is important to know that there are two types of cervicalgia neck pain: acute and chronic. Acute cervicalgia is severe stabbing pain or shooting pain that can move into the shoulders. Some people who suffer from acute cervicalgia have weakness in the arms or loss of coordination in the arms and legs. If you ever experience this or have neck pain accompanied by a lack of appetite, weight loss, nausea, and vomiting, it could indicate an infection or spinal tumor.

Chronic cervicalgia is best described as pain that is present for a prolonged period. A pinched nerve is a common cause of chronic neck pain, but there are other potential causes. Treatment is required for cervical herniated disc, which pinches a nerve, but the intensity of pain will determine if a non-surgical or surgical approach is necessary.

Causes of cervicalgia neck pain

Nerves, bones, discs, muscles, ligaments, and joints — all the cervical structures can cause neck pain when they are irritated or inflamed. How does this happen? The list below covers cervicalgia causes.

Injury/trauma: During accidents, people can experience whiplash. This type of injury is a hyperextension of the neck because the head is forced to move either forward or backward beyond the neck’s normal range of movement. This has a harsh impact on the muscles and ligaments in the neck, leading to weakness, pain, and stiffness. Sports injuries can cause microscopic tears in neck muscles, creating inflammation.

Age: We experience degenerative disorders such as osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease as we get older. Osteoarthritis is a common condition that causes the body to form bone spurs that can impact joint movement. Degenerative discs affect the intervertebral discs so that they lose elasticity and height. As the disorder progresses, a bulging or herniated disc may occur.

Diseases/conditions: In these cases, cervicalgia neck pain needs to be taken seriously. It could be a spinal infection, fracture, or a tumor causing the pain and discomfort.

Sitting too long: Yes, sitting in a chair too long can lead to neck pain. It is important to take breaks from time-to-time while you are working. If you sit at a desk doing work for long hours, you need to make sure you have a proper set-up to avoid neck pain. There are ergonomic experts that can help you with this.

Kyphosis: This is a condition that affects athletes, including cyclists, baseball catchers, and bodybuilders. These people tend to stand with their shoulders rounded forward and their chins poking forward. Any movements that promote this type of posture can lead to kyphosis.

Lifestyle: Poor posture, obesity, and weak abdominal muscles can cause the neck to bend forward, putting strain on the neck and shoulder area. This leads to muscle pain and stiffness.

Sleeping: People who sleep on their stomach can increase stress on their neck and experience aching and tightness.

Stress: When we are under stress, it can build tight and pressured muscles in the neck, back, and shoulders. Most people are not even aware when they are clenching their muscles in their neck.

Poor post-workout: Incomplete or poor stretching following physical training can lead to tight, achy muscles. Think of stretching after a workout as cooling off your muscles.

Signs and symptoms of cervicalgia neck pain

As mentioned earlier, cervicalgia pain is usually local, which means it doesn’t radiate to other parts of the body. Some people with cervicalgia neck pain will be lucky to get away with minor symptoms, such as a stiff neck for a few days or difficulty moving the head from side-to-side. Some people call this a “crick in the neck.”

Not everyone has mild symptoms though. For some people, neck pain can be severe and debilitating. Severe pain, inflammation, and muscle tightness makes it hard to move. One symptom of cervicalgia is sharp pain in the neck whenever moving the head suddenly. In some cases, this can happen every time the person tries to move their neck. The following list covers some of the other cervicalgia symptoms that people may experience:

Diagnosis for cervicalgia neck pain

For the most part, diagnosing minor cervicalgia is not difficult. A physical exam can quickly detect the symptoms and a quick discussion with the doctor can usually pinpoint the cause. When the cause is not obvious, a detailed medical history will be compiled and diagnostic tests will be ordered. For example, x-rays can reveal narrowing of disc space, the presence of osteoarthritis, and fractures. MRIs can be conducted to determine if a person has a bulging or herniated disc. Here are some other typical tests:

  • Bone scan: Detects spinal problems, including arthritis, fractures or infections.
  • Nerve conduction: Studies or electromyography to find out if the patient has nerve damage.
  • Discogram: Can confirm or rule out problems with discs in the neck.
  • Myelogram: Determines if a person has spinal canal or spinal cord injury

During a physical examination, the doctor doesn’t just look at the patient’s spine, they will also do a neurological exam that involves testing the upper and lower limbs, checking for abnormal gait as well as any bladder or bowel problems. If the doctor detects heat in the neck muscles or joints, it could be a sign of an underlying inflammatory problem or a condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis. When pain is experienced upon light pressure being placed on specific tender points in the neck, as well as other parts of the body, the doctor may suspect fibromyalgia.

Treating cervicalgia neck pain

A lot of people see improvement in their neck pain in just days or weeks with some at-home care. Exactly how you should treat the pain largely depends on the cause. For instance, if you suspect a muscle tear due to a sports injury or some other type of trauma, applying ice is a good way to relieve swelling and pain. However, heat should be avoided as it could make the situation worse.

If cervicalgia is the result of tension as opposed to an injury, heat can be effective in relaxing the muscles and relieving the neck pain. No matter what the cause of cervicalgia is, adequate rest is always helpful. Let’s look at some other possible cervicalgia treatments:

Stretch it out: Neck pain exercises each day may help. Wait until the worst of the pain is gone and then try exercising the neck. Warming up the area with a heating pad or having a warm shower or bath can also be helpful. Head turns are one stretch for your neck. You simply face forward, turn your head to one side like you are looking over your shoulder and hold it for five to ten seconds. You can then slowly turn 180 degrees the other way and hold again for five to ten seconds. Repeat the neck exercise three to five times per day.

Pain relievers: Some people look for instant relief so they can move on to neck pain exercises. These individuals have the option of taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. They combine pain relief with an anti-inflammatory impact. There are those who prefer trigger point injections.

Collars: Cervical collars restrict movement of the neck and support the head so that strain is taken off the neck. Of course, lying down can also limit neck movement and lessen the strain so that muscles can heal.

Cervical traction: This is a technique whereby traction gently pulls the head and stretches the neck muscles. It can increase the size of neural passageways.

Physical therapy: Cervicalgia sufferers can work with a physical therapist that can develop a treatment plan that may include neck pain exercises, heat/cold therapy, massage, and other techniques.

Surgery: Although it can be complicated, cervical spinal surgery does become necessary in some cases of severe neck pain. Normally, the neck pain has not responded to other conservative measures. Many factors will be assessed before surgery is recommended.

Thankfully, many people with cervicalgia will only suffer temporarily since it is most likely caused by sleeping in an awkward position, slouching over a desk, standing or sitting is a poor position, or not coping well with stress. Neck pain exercises can make a big difference for these people. Check out the following video to see some of the suggested neck stretches performed by a doctor of physical therapy.


No matter what the cause of cervicalgia is, there is no denying that it can be uncomfortable and disruptive to your life. For those who have sustained an injury or trauma and get neck pain, it is important to give yourself time to heal before diving back into your normal activity or sport. When the neck pain is severe and persistent, it should be addressed in consultation with a medical professional, since ignoring the symptoms can make the condition get even worse.

Related: Chronic neck pain can be relieved with tai chi: Study



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