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Common Causes of Neck Pain

Updated on December 28, 2016
Jennifer Essary profile image

Jennifer is a licensed massage therapist. She is also an instructor of anatomy, physiology, and several massage modalities.

Joined: 5 years agoFollowers: 229Articles: 26
Deep Muscles of Posterior Neck
Deep Muscles of Posterior Neck | Source

Posture and Neck Pain

Poor posture is the most common reason many people will complain about neck pain during their lifetime. Luckily, several lifestyle habits that cause neck pain can be reversed. Most people experience pain in the back of the neck, where the postural muscles are located. There are actually several groups of muscles that are continuously working to hold the head upright, including the trapezius, splenius capitis, erector spinae, and suboccipital groups. These postural muscles become tight, tense, and overworked when the head is too far forward.

When muscles are continuously contracted and overstretched they become depleted of water and nutrients, usually creating trigger points. Tension headaches are the result of trigger points in the upper trapezius muscle that refer pain to the temples. When the head is too far forward and the ear is in front of the shoulder, the muscles in the front of the neck, such as the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, are shortened, pulling the head forward. Those who treat themselves at home with a sports cream or a hot or cold pack usually don't think about the front of the neck. Unfortunately some massage therapists may overlook these muscles, as well. Assessing one's lifestyle and habits, especially when a considerable amount of time is involved performing a given task, can help alleviate the potential causes of neck pain.

Side View of Neck Muscles (click to enlarge)
Side View of Neck Muscles (click to enlarge) | Source

Consult Your Health Care Provider

If you suffer from neck pain, you should consult health care provider to address any concerns you may have.

Sitting at a Desk

Writers and office workers can develop neck pain if their workstation is not properly set up. The computer screen should be level with the eyes to prevent straining the neck muscles. Those of us who work on a laptop are at a disadvantage. In order for the screen to be eye level the keyboard will most likely be too high for us to reach. If the table is too high, or the chair too low, many will have to elevate the shoulders to reach the keyboard. Lifting the shoulders to reach the desk or keyboard will result in a continuous contraction of neck and shoulder muscles.

When using a mouse, make sure it is close so that your arm isn't continuously reaching for it. Over time the shoulder will project forward and create tension between the shoulder blades as well as the upper trapezius. Those who use the telephone regularly should invest in a headset. Otherwise the neck muscles will be overworked by holding a phone to the ear with the shoulder.

Shoulder Bags

Carrying a heavy bag repeatedly on the same side of the body will create shoulder and neck tension. Try to switch shoulders when carrying a heavy bag or purse, or look for a bag that distributes the weight evenly. If you can forego the fashion trend of an oversized bag and carry a smaller version, your neck will thank you for it. For those who cannot escape with a small bag, look for an ergonomic bag that distributes the weight evenly. May ergonomic bags are worn across the body or are carried on both shoulders simultaneously. Some backpacks are now equipped with wheels and a handle so that they can be pulled instead of carried.


There are two explanations for those who wake up with more neck pain than they had the night before. Tight neck muscles are depleted of circulation, but they receive a greater blood supply during the day than at night. As people go about their daily chores the neck muscles are constantly in use. When muscles contract and relax they release metabolic wastes and absorb fresh fluids. Yes, it may not be the ideal amount, but when we sleep the neck muscles are at rest for roughly 8 hours. Sleeping gives tight muscles a chance to stiffen because circulation is diminished from lack of use.

The more obvious explanation is poor alignment and support of the neck while sleeping. There are a variety of pillows available for back, stomach, and side sleepers, but many of us rotate through all 3 positions during the night. Unfortunately, I've never seen one pillow that can accommodate all sleepers. Back sleepers need cervical support with a flatter surface for the head to rest on. Those who sleep on their side need a pillow roughly as thick as the distance between the ear and shoulder. The head should be in alignment with the spine and the pillow should help take pressure off of the bottom shoulder. Although sleeping on your stomach can be cozy it's one of the worst positions for those suffering from lower back pain. Stomach sleepers need a flatter pillow to keep the neck in line with the spine.


Hobbies are meant to help a person unwind from the stresses of life, but they can contribute to neck pain, as well. Of course, if you sustain a blow to the head playing soccer, football, or rugby your neck will probably hurt. Most people don't think about the sedentary hobbies such as scrapbooking, knitting, and cross-stitch. When a person looks down for extended periods of time on a regular basis it will put a strain on the postural muscles of the neck. It is essentially the same as having a forward head posture. As I'm writing this article, I'm lying on the couch with my head propped on pillows to avoid using my neck muscles. Writing is one of my hobbies, I'm using a laptop, and my neck has been bothering me this week.

The Brain

Special neruons called proprioceptors continuously monitor our joints and muscles to to let out body know where we are in relation to the horizon. Many of us have misaligned skeletons due to muscle tension asymmetry. However, we don't typically see people walking around bent to the side. When the body is crooked the brain will recruit muscles to realign the body with gravity and the horizon. For example, if the right hip is high we would expect to see the torso lean to the left. In this case the brain will shorten the muscles on the right side of the lower back in an attempt to bring the body back to center. Now the torso is slightly off so muscles on the left side of the upper to mid back will tighten. The neck unfortunately is the final balancing point for the brain to level the eyes with the horizon, hence the reason so many people complain of neck pain.


Stand in front of a mirror, and look at your shoulders. There are a few common patterns that create neck and shoulder pain. Is one shoulder higher than the other? A high shoulder can be the result of carrying a heavy bag, holding the phone with the shoulder, carrying a baby, and even sleep. Some people will experience pain on the high shoulder side. Others will feel pain on the lower side even though the muscles are not as tight. As the brain levels the eyes with the horizon a tug-of-war occurs with one side of the neck trying to overpower the other.

Is the distance between the shoulder and the center of the body the same on both sides? With the arms relaxed by your sides do your thumbs point forward or do you only see the back of the hand? Both of these questions look to see if the shoulders are rotated forwards. When the shoulders are rotated forward the head is usually pulled forward as well. Unfortunately most of us have this posture because we reach for things all day. Forward head and shoulders will create tension in the neck, shoulders, and upper back between the shoulder blades. To correct this posture the muscles in the chest and neck need to be lengthened by stretching, yoga, and/or massage. Conversely the muscles in the back need to be strengthened, usually with weight training.


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    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Voted UP! I feel for my neck, I am not nice to it and I get punished at times with headaches, aches and pains. Thanks for the informative and hopefully I'll learn my lesson now hub:))

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 5 years ago from Idaho

      I'd say 99.9% of people are crooked and complain of an aching neck. The good news is your normal. I'm constantly trying to keep my ear over my shoulder, but I'm so tall and the world is engineered for shorter people it's nearly impossible. Someday I will rip out all of the counters in my house and raise them a foot! Thanks for sharing your time and voting : )

    • klurbauer profile image

      klurbauer 5 years ago from Brink of Insanity ;)

      My neck hurts a lot of the time -- to much time sitting on my laptop in strange positions on the couch I think. These are good tips -- very informative article. Thanks!

    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 5 years ago from Winnipeg

      Great info here, I agree in most cases you should be able to self diagnose where the problem stems from. In my case I know my neck soreness is due to looking at computer screens all day, so I stretch back in my chair regularly to relieve the stress on my neck and shoulders. You really have to take note on what is the cause and then you can take measures to alleviate the pain. Thanks for sharing, voted uP!

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 5 years ago from Idaho

      klurbauer and carcro, I often think about going back in time to visit with the cavemen. I'm pretty sure they didn't sit in one position 8 hours a day performing one task. It's really not much of a mystery why so many of us have aches and pains. Our lives are unnatural compared to how we would live without modern technology.

    • carcro profile image

      Paul Cronin 5 years ago from Winnipeg

      Totally, what saves me is I go outside for a twenty minute walk everyday on my lunch break, even in the cold weather. Sure helps to stretch out all the muscles and joints.

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 5 years ago from Idaho

      A walk, even a short one, is beneficial for most of the things that ail us.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 5 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      This is a wonderfully informative and beautifully written article. I hadn't been paying much attention to my morning neck pain, because it's not debilitating, only annoying. But now that I've read your information, I have a much better understanding of what's happening. I'm reminded of the saying, "If you don't use it, you lose it." Sleeping certainly puts the neck out of service, and the morning stiffness makes a lot of sense. Also, I need to be following carcro's example...I've become entirely too sedentary in the last few years! Voted up, useful, and interesting. Great hub!

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 5 years ago from Idaho

      Thank you Sally's Trove. I often wake up with a stiff neck myself. I jokingly say it's because I have a long neck and a big melon, but I know I don't sleep correctly and I don't have the best posture. I'm happy I took some of the mystery out of your situation. Thank you for voting and sharing your thoughts : )

    • dagny roth profile image

      dagny roth 5 years ago from Neverland

      Great Hub! I suffer from neck pain...was told I have a protruding disc and there's not much they can do about it. I realized reading this I most likely contribute to the issue with some of my bad habits! Voted up.

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 5 years ago from Idaho

      Dagny, I'm sorry to hear about your neck. You might look into massage since muscles hold the bones in place. When the head is in front of the shoulders the brain shortens the muscles in the front and back of the neck to bring the eyes up. This causes strain in the joints and can sometimes lead to protruding discs. I recommend looking for a therapist that specializes in myoskeletal alignment. It's a technique that balances the muscles to make the joints happy. Thank you for sharing your time, thoughts, and vote : ) Best Wishes

    • My Minds Eye53 profile image

      My Minds Eye53 5 years ago from Tennessee

      Voted up. Another great hub. I do not have that curve in my spine at the neck. I guess I was born that way.

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 5 years ago from Idaho

      Minds Eye, I don't have a cervical curve either. I've always thought it probably has to do with the numerous hours I've spent soaking in the tub resting my skull on the edge. I think the warm water and stretching probably straightened it out. Thank you for voting and posting a comment : )

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      I have had low back pain from a bulging disc in my low back. I first experienced the pain 5 years ago. I tried exercise, and traditional chiropractic adjustments with limited success :(

      thanks for your hub, it is quite informative & useful

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 4 years ago from Idaho

      Hey Mike, I hope you found my hub on lower back pain. Either way, I know most of us experience neck pain at some point in our life. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story : )

    • ryanjhoe profile image

      ryanjhoe 4 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      Interesting article. Sometimes, I have neck pain after I woke up in the morning. I realize that it is possibly because of my sleeping style.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 4 years ago from California

      Very interesting article Jennifer! Sharing!

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 4 years ago from Idaho

      Thank you Audrey and ryanjhoe. I hope you both found this article useful for resolving your neck pain. Thank you both for stopping by and sharing your time : )

    • Kasman profile image

      Kas 4 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

      I really enjoyed this hub Jennifer. Funny enough, my wife and I have been using a different version of the petite pillow for about a year now and you talk about a difference in how we feel overall. We noticed a definite difference when we moved to New Zealand earlier this year for 3 months and didn't have our pillows with us. It was something we ended up embracing like a long lost friend when we arrived in the States again.

    • Jennifer Essary profile image

      Jennifer Essary 4 years ago from Idaho

      I completely understand your love of your pillow. My husband is a flight paramedic and if he doesn't get much sleep at work then I'm almost guaranteed his snoring will keep me awake the next night. On those occasions I sleep in the guest room and generally forget to take my own pillow with me. Waking up with a stiff/sore neck is no picnic especially when it gives you a touch of a headache. Ugh... I'm glad you and your wife have since been reunited with your pillows. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts : )

    • profile image

      Frenchir Frazier 2 years ago

      Lots of advice. I have a sore neck and head cold . Neck pain below and behind ear also , I can't clear my head of mucus .

    • profile image

      julia 12 months ago

      how wonderful to see this information. it validated all that I could "see in my minds eye" that was going on in my back/neck/right shoulder and jaw, due to spending 8+ hrs daily on my work computer or my personal laptop. it has ruined my posture, with my right shoulder lower and forward of my left and feeling like my right sided ribs are pressing into my breastbone. I am going to make monumental efforts to reposition and realign my upper body & core, etc. with the strengthening, stretching, and massaging of my body parts! thank you.

    • profile image

      Erum 4 months ago

      What was medicine used right hand neck and ear pain

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