When You’ve Got Pain from the Neck to the Shoulders

When You’ve Got Pain from the Neck to the Shoulders
May 11, 2018

While the area from the neck to the shoulders isn’t expansive, a lot can happen that triggers pain in this high-intensity region, according to Interventional Pain Management Specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang with Atlantic Spine Center. A wide variety of injuries and health conditions can lead to pain in the neck and/or shoulders, with most of those problems stemming from soft tissues in the area. Occasionally, a condition not originating in the neck and shoulder region – such as a heart attack – can cause pain there, but this type of calamity isn’t the norm, Dr. Chang notes.“Our neck and shoulders house structures that support our head and spine and, indeed, help the arms and rest of the body work correctly,” he explains. “These include muscles, bones, nerves, arteries and veins, along with many ligaments and other parts. And pain can come from any of these, or from another area seemingly unrelated to the neck and shoulders.”

Causes of Pain Between Neck and Shoulders

While it’s next to impossible to list all the causes of pain from the neck to the shoulders, Dr. Chang says these are among the top contenders:

  • Injuries such as whiplash or collarbone fracture
  • Sprains or strains in muscles surrounding the neck and/or shoulders
  • Rotator cuff injuries in the shoulder or a fractured shoulder blade
  • Degenerative arthritis of the neck, which is known medically as the cervical spine
  • Degenerative disc disease in the neck
  • Herniated discs in the cervical spine region
  • Tendonitis, which is swelling and inflammation of the tendons connecting muscles to bones
  • Gallbladder disease, which can cause referred pain to the right shoulder

Bear in mind that not all pain between the shoulders and neck feels stabbing or sharp. “Pain can also be described as cramping, burning or dull,” he says. “Sometimes a stiff neck is another form of pain, and even a headache can be part of the overall picture.”

Diagnosing and Treating Shoulder to Neck Pain

If your pain from neck to shoulders comes on suddenly and is severe, head to an emergency department, Dr. Chang advises. There, acute causes of your pain can be ruled out, such as a heart attack or gallbladder attack. “Major injuries to the region, such as fractures or dislocations, also need to be seen by a doctor immediately,” he adds. But if this pain comes on more gradually and isn’t severe, it’s OK to schedule an office visit to diagnose the underlying cause. Diagnostic tools vary, but in general a thorough medical history and physical exam will be performed. Additionally, tests may be ordered such as x-rays, CT or MRI scans, or blood tests, Dr. Chang says. Most cases of pain from the neck to shoulders will need only home treatment to see improvement. These remedies include resting; doing movement exercises; applying ice or heat for short periods; or taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. “If home remedies aren’t working or aren’t appropriate for the problem, physical therapy or anti-inflammatory injections often can be helpful. Sometimes more invasive measures, such as surgery, are necessary for persistent problems.” “But the vast majority of people dealing with pain from the neck to shoulders will recover quickly and fully,” Dr. Chang says. “It’s a highly common problem with high success rates for common sense solutions.”

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