Understanding Neck and Shoulder Pain (2024)

Neck and shoulder pain commonly occur together. This combination of pain can be particularly challenging because both the neck and shoulder may have reduced motion, which can affect many more routine activities compared to when just the neck or shoulder is involved.

See Could That Shoulder Pain Really Stem From the Neck?

In This Article:

  • Understanding Neck and Shoulder Pain
  • What Causes Neck and Shoulder Pain?
  • Causes of Shoulder Blade Pain Video

What Does Neck and Shoulder Pain Feel Like?

Neck and shoulder pain may start suddenly, such as after an injury, or gradually. Many people with neck and shoulder pain experience one or more of the following:

  • Mild discomfort or achiness, which may feel localized to a spot between the neck and shoulder or diffused across a broader region across the shoulder and/or up the neck
  • Sharp or shock-like pain that likely comes and goes, possibly radiating down the shoulder and/or into the arm or hand
  • Stiffness and decreased range of motion in the neck and shoulder, which may limit the ability to turn the head or lift the arm
  • Tenderness in the neck or shoulders that worsens when pressed (these spots of tenderness are sometimes called trigger points)
  • Tingling, numbness, and/or weakness that can go down into the shoulder, arm, and/or hand

    Watch Cervical Radiculopathy Interactive Video

In some cases, the neck and shoulder pain may worsen with certain activities, such as turning the head to the side, working above the head, or participating in sports. For others, the pain may worsen when resting, such as when sitting or trying to sleep.

Development of Neck and Shoulder Pain

The neck and shoulder are interconnected by many nerves, blood vessels, muscles, and other tissues. A problem in the neck can send pain to the shoulder, and vice versa. Some of the underlying biomechanics that can contribute to both neck and shoulder pain include:

  • Muscle dysfunction. An injury or inflammation to a muscle in the neck or shoulder may lead to pain and stiffness. Sometimes when one muscle becomes tight or dysfunctional, nearby muscles may need to work more and become painful. The muscles’ connective tissues (fascia), tendons, or ligaments may also become injured or inflamed, possibly sending referred pain to nearby areas.

See Neck Strain: Causes and Remedies

  • Nerve compression or inflammation. When a nerve in the neck becomes compressed or inflamed, it may send pain down into the shoulder, arm, and/or hand. Similarly, a nerve compressed or inflamed in the shoulder may radiate pain up to the neck. 1 Arthritis of the Shoulder. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00222. Last reviewed: January 2013. Accessed August 8, 2019. The brachial plexus, which is the group of nerves that run from the lower neck and upper back across the shoulder, can be involved in various types of neck and shoulder pain.

    See Cervical Radiculopathy Symptoms

  • Blood vessel compression. If blood vessels between the neck and shoulder become compressed, it may affect blood circulation and cause pain or swelling.

Many other factors may be involved with developing neck and shoulder pain, such as stress or anxiety. 2 Buscemi V, Chan W-J, Liston M, McAuley JH, Schabrun SM. The role of perceived stress and life stressors in the development of chronic musculoskeletal pain disorders: a systemic review. J Pain. 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2019.02.008 Sometimes neck and shoulder pain may have more than one cause or separate causes.


Getting a Diagnosis for Neck and Shoulder Pain

Seek a medical evaluation for neck and shoulder pain if any of the following are true:

  • Pain persists for a couple weeks
  • Pain interferes with daily activities
  • Numbness or weakness are present

Only a trained medical professional can give an accurate diagnosis. Once an accurate diagnosis is reached for the specific cause of neck and shoulder pain, an effective treatment plan can be started.

See Diagnosing Neck Pain

Dr. Jason Kirkbride is a sports medicine physician specializing in sports and musculoskeletal injuries. He serves as the Co-Director of Regenerative Medicine at Princeton Spine & Joint Center.


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Understanding Neck and Shoulder Pain (2024)


Understanding Neck and Shoulder Pain? ›

Neck and shoulder pain is usually the result of strains and sprains from overexertion or bad posture. Sometimes this pain will go away on its own. Stretching and strengthening exercises can also treat the pain. Sometimes neck and shoulder pain is due to a fracture in the bones of your shoulder.

How do I know if my neck and shoulder pain is serious? ›

Contact a health care provider if neck pain: Is severe. Persists for several days without relief. Spreads down arms or legs.

What are the red flags for neck and shoulder pain? ›

Seek immediate medical care if neck pain is associated with the following symptoms: Severe pain. Tingling, numbness or weakness in arm, shoulder or hands. Radiating pain.

How do I stop my neck and shoulders from hurting? ›

In mild to moderate cases, home remedies may help.
  1. Move more. You may have heard that rest is the best remedy for muscle pain and neck stiffness. ...
  2. Hot and cold therapy. Using ice packs or heating pads can help relieve neck pain fast. ...
  3. Over-the-counter medications. ...
  4. Postural changes. ...
  5. Neck pain exercises.

How do you release tension in your neck and shoulders? ›

Other options for neck and shoulder tension
  1. Apply a warm compress to the tight area.
  2. Spend a few minutes doing a self-massage.
  3. Soak in a warm tub, and add a few drops of aromatherapy oil for extra relaxation.
  4. Adjust your workstation, so your computer is at eye level to avoid neck strain.
Feb 17, 2021

What does a pinched nerve in the neck feel like? ›

Sharp, aching or burning pain, which may radiate outward. Tingling, or a pins and needles feeling. Muscle weakness in the affected area.

How do I know if my neck pain is muscular? ›

When your neck is sore, you may have trouble moving it, especially to one side. Many people describe this as having a stiff neck. If neck pain involves nerves, such as a muscle spasm pinching on a nerve or a slipped disk pressing on a nerve, you may feel numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm, hand, or elsewhere.

When should I go to the doctor for neck and shoulder pain? ›

Schedule an office visit

Call your doctor if you have neck pain that: Worsens in spite of self-care. Persists after several weeks of self-care. Radiates down your arms or legs.

How do I know if my neck and shoulder pain is heart related? ›

Sudden Pain in the Arm, Neck, Jaw or Upper back

These symptoms are frequently due to a heart attack or angina, especially if they appear suddenly and are accompanied by uneasiness, breathlessness or sweating. In the case of angina, they may disappear totally after a few minutes.

What illnesses cause neck and shoulder pain? ›

Common causes include physical strain, poor posture, mental stress, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, herniated disk, pinched nerve, tumors and other health conditions.

Should you massage a pulled neck muscle? ›

Massage is an effective way to loosen up and relax your neck muscles. It can also increase blood flow to any damaged tissues, which may provide some relief. You can sometimes find massage therapy offered together with manual manipulation. Physical therapy.

What vitamin is good for neck and shoulder pain? ›

It is evident that treating vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency is important in the management of chronic neck and back pain and muscle spasm.

How do you loosen tight neck muscles? ›

Tilting and holding your head on each side is one repetition.
  1. With your head facing forward, slowly tilt your head towards one shoulder as far as is comfortable – you should feel a stretch on the opposite side of your neck.
  2. Hold for 2 seconds then return to where you started.
  3. Repeat on the other side.

Why won't my neck muscles relax? ›

You might be able to relieve a stiff neck by stretching your arms over your head and slowly rolling your neck in a circle. Visit a healthcare provider if you're still experiencing pain or have stiffness that lasts more than a few days. Almost everyone's experienced a stiff neck at some point in their life.

What if neck and shoulder pain is not going away? ›

Visit a doctor for any neck or shoulder pain that persists for more than a week or two. If pain is accompanied by any troublesome signs or symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, dizziness, nausea, or problems with coordination, seek immediate medical attention.

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