How to tell when neck pain is serious

How to tell when neck pain is serious 1024 535 Best Practice Health TV

As an emergency room nurse Christina knew right away what was happening; that didn’t make it hurt any less. “I could not sleep. I could not position myself at night to where my right arm wasn’t just flaming. I had to wear a sling to work.”

Although there is no sure way to tell the cause of neck pain from the symptoms, there are definitely clues to the cause and level in how the pain presents. A sore joint in the neck due to arthritis is generally mostly in the neck and radiates to the base of the neck, not reaching the shoulder. In cervical radiculopathy the pain is mostly in the arm.

“I was having radiating, searing, pins and needles kind of pain going down into my fingers.” — Christina

It is also associated with numbness in the hands and arm weakness. An MRI confirmed the cause of Christina’s symptoms the next day: herniated disc in the neck causing cervical radiculopathy. Christina’s next step was to pick a pain management physician who was board certified in anesthesia or physiatry and subspecialized in pain management for epidural injections.

Most of us don’t happen to be nurses. And cervical radiculopathy is so painful it makes you feel like there is an emergency—and you need to act. Doctors use red flags know if they need to act or it’s safe to treat at home. The red flags for neck pain are:

  • Fever, shakes, chills or night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss or history of cancer
  • Unbearable neck or arm pain, with or without functional numbness or weakness
  • Point tenderness over one of the bones along the back of the neck

If you have any of these symptoms, then stop reading and contact a doctor. Don’t have a doctor? Urgent care or the hospital. Otherwise, you are clear to treat at home. In the next blog I’ll discuss doctor-recommendation treatment of neck pain. Here’s a sneak peek: