Severe neck pain can be debilitating and might be a sign of a serious medical condition. In other cases, the neck pain may be only a distraction, easily treated with over the counter medication. Identifying the cause of neck pain is crucial for effective treatment. The most common causes of severe neck pain include poor posture, sleeping positions that strain the neck, muscle spasms, a herniated cervical disk and injuries.
Neck strain and its accompanying pain are frequently caused by poor posture. Attention to posture during the day can help one prevent a neck strain. Leaning forward while seated, such as while reading or working at a keyboard, can cause neck strain. Sleeping in a seated position is also likely to cause neck pain and stiffness. Poor neck support during sleep can also be a factor, and a new pillow or mattress might relieve the symptoms.
Sometimes, a simple muscle spasm might be the cause of severe neck pain. If one's neck is stiff and movement causes pain, a spasm might be responsible. Heat and anti-inflammatory painkillers should be sufficient to treat this neck pain, but if symptoms persist, other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia might be indicated, and consultation with a doctor is recommended.
Pain that radiates down the shoulder or the arm might indicate a herniated cervical disk pressing against the nerve. Heat and over-the-counter pain relievers are generally recommended for treatment. For sudden pain, though, a trip to the doctor might be required.
Chronic pain, especially when accompanied by stiffness or pain in other joints such as knees, hips or in the hands, might indicate degenerative cervical arthritis. Over-the-counter painkillers might be sufficient. If pain persists or intensifies, consultation with a doctor is recommended.
Often, severe neck pain is the result of some sort of injury. A serious incident that causes injury to the neck, such as a car accident, might trigger immediate pain, or the pain might grow gradually. Over-the-counter painkillers might be sufficient to relieve symptoms, but medical attention is still recommended for accident victims who are experiencing severe neck pain, especially if pain persists.
Other, less-severe accidents, falls or blows might not require a visit to the emergency room. These can usually be treated with over-the-counter painkillers and heat. Even these injuries should be monitored, though, and if symptoms persist or worsen, a doctor should be consulted.
Meningitis causes a number of symptoms, including neck pain. Severe neck pain and stiffness accompanied by fever, sensitivity to light and vomiting are indicators of viral illnesses such as meningitis. If meningitis is suspected, immediate medical attention is required.