The Common Causes of Neck and Shoulder Pain, Revealed

Pain can be debilitating and make it hard to live a healthy life. Unfortunately, that struggle is familiar for millions across the country: 1 in 5 Americans suffers from unresolved chronic pain. For both chronic and new pain sufferers, pain in the neck and shoulders can make everyday activities hard or even impossible.

If you’re struggling through life with pain, read on for some common causes of neck and shoulder pain and how to treat them.

The Neck and Shoulders Connection

It’s not unusual to experience pain simultaneously in both the neck and shoulders. That’s because these two regions are closely connected.

Several nerves connect the neck to the shoulders. Therefore, when pain signals are sent to the brain, your brain can get the neck and shoulders confused. That means that neck pain may be mistaken for shoulder pain and vice versa.

The muscles in the upper back also connect the neck and shoulders. If one of these muscles is hurt or injured, the pain can spread throughout the entire area.

Common Causes of Neck and Shoulder Pain

The neck and shoulders are both susceptible to various injuries and issues that can cause pain and discomfort. In some cases, this pain is only temporary. In other cases, the pain may be long-term, lasting for years.

If you’re suffering from neck and shoulder pain, one of these common causes may explain why.

Bone or Joint Issues

There is a range of possible bone or joint issues that can affect the neck and shoulders.

Because the neck is part of the spine, disc issues, such as disc degeneration can cause intense pain in the neck. Cervical spondylosis, where the bones and discs around the neck wear down, can also create discomfort and stiffness.

The bones and joints of the shoulder can also be easily damaged. The shoulder is made up of a ball-and-socket joint with a wide range of motion. This makes it extremely easy to injure.

Trauma or Injury

With the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint, one common injury is dislocation. This can cause intense pain and muscle spasms that can spread down the arm and to the neck.

Another common injury to this area is a rotator cuff tear. These tears can result from one injury or age and repeated use of the shoulder.

Shoulder injuries can also include the shoulder blade. One severe injury that can cause pain in the shoulder, neck, and back is a broken shoulder blade. This injury is often apparent because of the intense pain and swelling that accompanies it.

Whiplash, which affects the neck, can also damage muscles surrounding the neck. Whiplash can occur in car accidents, sports, or in other sudden movements of the neck.

Finally, an example of an injury that isn’t directly located in the neck or shoulders is a broken collarbone. Broken collarbones can cause severe pain in the chest. But this pain can also extend to the neck and shoulders, and it may become difficult to move or lift your arm.

Muscle Strain

Muscle strains and sprains are among the most common causes of pain in the neck and shoulders. Thankfully, they’re also among the easiest to treat.

Muscle strain can be caused by repeated tension in the neck or overuse of the shoulder muscles.

Exercise and physical labor commonly lead to muscle strain. But even everyday use of the neck, shoulders, and arms can lead to tension and strain.

One way to know if your pain is from muscle strain is to check if it only affects one side. If only your dominant side (for example, the right side of the body for right-handed people) is in pain, it may be from muscle strain and tension built up throughout the day.

Bad Posture

Posture isn’t just important in making you look more confident. Bad posture can also cause pain in your neck, back, and shoulders.

Hunching over, such as while working at a desk, can easily hurt and strain the neck. Even typing on a computer all day can fatigue the shoulder and back muscles.

Your phone habits can also lead to pain. Recently, doctors have noted that constantly looking at phones can lead to poor posture called “text neck.”

Posture and form while being active are also worth paying attention to. For example, if you lift weights or play sports, bad posture can lead to pain and even injury.

Sleeping position, too, can affect the neck and shoulders. The neck and upper body should be well-supported while sleeping. Sleeping in a comfortable bed with a pillow that relieves tension from the neck and shoulders can help improve posture and pain.

Pinched Nerves

Pinched nerves can occur in the neck and cause pain that can spread to the shoulder. One sign of a pinched nerve is numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arm and hand.

For some older people, a pinched nerve may be associated with cervical spondylosis.

Medical Emergencies and Serious Conditions

Though less common, some neck and shoulder pain may be related to severe conditions or emergencies.

A heart attack, for example, can cause pain or numbness in the arm, shoulder, and neck. This sensation typically comes on suddenly and is unrelated to injury or trauma.

A stroke may cause pain in the neck and weakness in the arm. These symptoms usually coincide with a drooping face, extreme weakness, trouble walking, and changes in speech or vision.

Some cancers can also cause pain in these areas. For example, head and neck cancer can be painful in the neck and shoulders. And lung cancer can sometimes cause pain in the shoulder.

How to Treat Neck and Shoulder Pain

Shoulder and neck pain treatment depends on the cause of the pain. However, here are a few steps to try:

  • Visit a doctor in this specialty for a proper diagnosis and treatment
  • Rest and avoid overexerting yourself during sports and exercise
  • Use ice packs or heating pads to relieve pain and soothe muscles
  • Use over-the-counter medications or topical creams
  • Try a massage, especially for muscle strain
  • Do stretching and gentle exercises to relieve tension

Finally, be mindful of your posture and make needed adjustments to your work or sleeping environments.

Dealing With Pain: A Pain in the Neck

There are many causes of neck and shoulder pain. And they can all make it hard to lead a healthy and happy life. Try our treatment recommendations, and see a doctor if your pain doesn’t improve.

For more on healthy living, stay up to date with our latest health articles!

1 Comment

  • Reply March 22, 2023

    Dawn Sandalcidi

    Great article! Neck and shoulder pain that occur together typically occurs due to an injury but can also occur with certain health conditions, including a heart attack. Treatment can depend on the cause.

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