What causes neck pain?

Neck pain is a common complaint for a large portion of the population at any age. This kind of pain can often be debilitating and can make performing even the most simple tasks extremely difficult. It can spring from serious back or nerve issues such as a pinched nerve, herniated disc, or underlying spinal/vertebrae issues.

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Can neck problems cause pain in the arms and shoulders?

Problems in the cervical spine – the section of the spine in your neck – can cause pain in the neck and shoulders as well as numbness and weakness in the arms.

Not every person with neck pain also develops arm pain, but if it does occur it is called cervical radiculopathy.
Visit our cervical radiculopathy page for more information.

What causes shoulder pain that radiates down the arm?

There could be many causes of pain in your shoulders and arms, including physical injury, muscle strain, a pinched nerve or problems in the cervical spine. The nerves that run from the spine in your neck, through the shoulders and down your arms can cause pain that radiates from the shoulders and down your arms – but the problem itself may be localized in the nerves in your spine. To diagnose your pain, Dr. Ahuja and his team may perform imaging procedures to look at the muscles and nerves in your arms, shoulders and spine.

What are the main causes of neck and arm pain?

Potential causes of neck and arm pain include:

  • Aging
  • Accidents
  • Simple daily strain
  • Injury to the neck or head
  • Prolonged neck problems
  • Problems in the cervical spine, or the section of the spine in your neck, can cause pain in the neck as well as numbness and weakness in the arms
  • Whiplash injuries

More complicated causes of neck and arm pain include:

Herniated and bulging discs:

  • Wear on a disc can cause the outer layer to rupture, creating a hernia.
  • The herniated disc can push on the spinal canal and nerve roots, causing pain, numbness, and weakness.
  • A bulging disc can also put pressure on the nerve, but the disc does not actually rupture as with a herniated disc.

Bone spurs:

  • Wear on the vertebrae can cause bone spurs, which are bony malformations that can put pressure on discs and inflame the nerves, causing pain.
  • Since bone spurs can put pressure on discs, the discs can flatten, dehydrate, and become degenerate.

Cervical spinal stenosis (aka “Pinched Nerve”):

  • Cervical spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column or foramen due to bone spurs or disc protrusion. It is sometimes referred to as a “pinched nerve”.
  • Central stenosis can pinch the spinal cord, and foraminal stenosis can pinch the nerve roots that exit through the foramen.
  • This pinching can cause back, shoulder, and arm pain. It can also cause numbness and weakness in the arms and hands.
Experiencing neck or arm pain?

Our staff can help you determine if your neck or arm pain is serious.

How is neck and arm pain diagnosed?

A medical history, coupled with a physical examination can give Dr. Ahuja a good background of your symptoms. Imaging, such as x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a computed tomography (CT) scans may be necessary to help visualize the vertebrae in your neck and spine.

Dr. Ahuja and staff perform radiological procedures at The Brain and Spine Imaging Center, our state-of-the-art imaging facility in Franklin, Wisconsin.

Health problem at office work

Is surgery necessary for neck and arm pain?

If the conservative treatments fail to improve symptoms, Dr. Ahuja will indicate which procedure will be most likely to reduce your pain. Depending on the condition, surgeries designed to relieve neck and arm pain can include cervical discectomy, or a cervical artificial disc replacement such as the Mobi-C® cervical disc.

Surgery is never our first choice. If Dr. Ahuja believes conservative treatments would be beneficial to try, there are a variety of options available. Our goal is to eliminate your pain or to get it to a level you can tolerate, hopefully without surgery.

What are non-surgical treatment options for neck and arm pain?

Physical therapy

  • Dr. Ahuja will often prescribe physical therapy, which can be very beneficial for some patients.
  • Physical therapists can teach patients exercises and ways to improve their posture and reduce stress on their neck.
  • There are many different types of physical therapy that may be prescribed, ranging from water therapy to special massage techniques.
  • Patients may be given home exercises that can help reduce stress on the spine and improve symptoms.
  • Physical therapy can strengthen the muscles in your neck, which can often improve symptoms.

Cervical spine traction

  • Cervical spine traction is a physical therapy kit that can be done with a therapist or at home.
  • Traction helps relieve pressure between the vertebrae and discs and can help open up the holes that are pinching the nerves and causing pain.
  • Traction is easy to do at home. It can be done several times a day for 5-7 minutes and is a simple way to improve your symptoms.


  • Medications are often an effective way to calm muscle spasms, reduce inflammation, and control pain.
  • It is important to take medications exactly as prescribed by Dr. Ahuja to maximize the effect that they will have in improving your symptoms.
  • Some medications will only treat pain caused by inflamed tissue, while others will specifically target pain due to pinched nerves. Others will help relax muscle spasms.

Neck Movement Exercises

Here are a few helpful neck movement exercises that may aid in your recovery. Dr. Ahuja or your physical therapist may suggest different ones depending on your individual needs. These are just suggestions, so please make sure to okay any exercises with Dr. Ahuja first.

  • Front To Back: Move your head back and forth 4-5 times, keeping your head tilted upright.
  • Swivel: Slowly turn your head right and left, only as far as comfortable.
  • Side To Side: Slowly bend back and forth, trying to touch your ears to your shoulders.
  • Resistance: Use your hands to press against different sides of your head, and then resist the movement with your neck. This strengthens your neck muscles.
  • Neck Lifts: Lie on your back on the floor and lift your head up and down. Repeat this both on your side and stomach, using a pillow to cushion your head.

Visit the Posture section of our Lower Back Pain page for more helpful tips to relieve pain.

Other advice for neck and arm pain

  • Stress can also play a major role in your neck pain, so ask Dr. Ahuja about healthy ways you can manage your stress.
  • Be sensible about what you can and cannot do, and always make sure to use proper body mechanics.
  • Feel free to call our office if you have any questions. We want you to get better and get back to the things you enjoy!