When to Seek Emergency Medical Care for Neck Pain


Neck pain has various causes — some as simple as sleeping in an awkward position. However, neck pain can also be a symptom of a serious illness, injury, or condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Neck pain that presents with the following symptoms indicates that immediate medical attention is in order:

Fever, headache, and neck stiffness

Symptoms of severe headache, high fever, and neck stiffness may indicate meningitis, which is a serious illness that involves inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Nausea, sensitivity to light, or vomiting may also be present. Immediate medical attention is imperative if meningitis is suspected, as permanent hearing loss, brain damage, or death can occur if treatment is delayed.

Numbness or weakness in an arm or hand

Neck pain that travels to an arm or hand and is accompanied by weakness, numbness, or tingling sensations often indicates nerve root compression in the cervical spine (cervical radiculopathy). Common causes of cervical radiculopathy include bone spurs, herniated discs, and spinal stenosis. If not treated, compression of the spine can lead to mobility issues.

Loss of bowel or bladder control

Neck pain accompanied by loss of bladder or bowel control indicates severe compression of the spinal cord. This is a medical emergency, as loss of mobility can occur.

Chest pain/pressure

Chest pain or pressure accompanied by sudden, severe neck pain may indicate a heart attack, especially in women. Pain may also extend to the shoulder, arm, back, jaw, teeth, or upper stomach. Other symptoms of a heart attack include heartburn, sudden dizziness, nausea, cold sweat, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

Other symptoms

Other symptoms that indicate emergency medical care is required include the following:

  • Weakness or loss of coordination in arms and/or legs
  • Trauma to the neck
  • Headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Inability to move the arms or hands
  • Inability to touch the chin to the chest
  • Severe neck pain, which may cause agitation or the inability to sit still