The majority of neck pain is caused by muscle strain and is typically resolved without medical intervention within a few days. However, pain in the front of the neck that persists, or which is severe and acute, can be a sign of a serious health issue that warrants medical attention.
Neck Pain and Heart Attack
In some cases, pain in the front of the neck may be a sign of a heart attack, especially if the pain is accompanied by jaw pain, shoulder pain, or pain int eh back or arm. Some people, especially women, feel a sense of discomfort rather than outright pain, which can make it less likely that women experiencing a heart attack receive prompt and adequate medical assistance.
Neck pain resulting from a heart attack may feel more like an increase in pressure in the neck, a sense of cramping, or even a squeezing sensation, often also felt in the chest itself. A heart attack may produce pain in the neck without any chest pain, and anyone experiencing such phenomenon should seek immediate medical help.
Causes of Neck Pain – Infections and Inflammation
Other causes of pain in the front of the neck are typically to do with the organs and structures located in this area of the body. These include the thyroid gland, larynx, pharynx, vocal cords, and the lymph nodes in the neck. As such, viral infections causing inflammation of these structures (pharyngitis, laryngitis, or even tonsilitis) can result in a sore throat and pain, along with symptoms of a cold. Strep throat and mononucleosis (mono) can also be a cause of pain in the front of the neck.
Some cases of neck pain may be caused by a systemic infection that happens to lead to inflamed lymph nodes in the neck. Mumps is a condition caused by a contagious viral disease that leads the salivary glands to become inflamed, creating a distinctive and painful swelling of the cheeks or jaw line.
In rare cases, epiglottitis may occur; a serious and life-threatening condition where the flap of tissue that covers the airway (to prevent us breathing in food or liquids) becomes inflamed, actually blocking air from getting to the lungs. Anyone with difficulty breathing should consult a medical professional immediately for assessment and assistance.
Acid Reflux and Neck Pain
Pain in the front of the neck may also be a result of heartburn (acid reflux) and hiatus hernia, as acid is forced up into the oesophagus where it causes burning and irritation of the tissues. When this becomes a chronic problem, it can predispose a person to cellular changes in the throat that are linked to oesophageal cancer.
Thyroid cancer is another potential cause of pain in the neck, with the pain typically accompanied by a cough, hoarseness or other change in vocal tone, as well as the feeling of having a lump in the throat. Thyroid enlargement that isn’t cancerous (i.e. goitre) is also a potential cause of anterior neck pain.
More Causes of Anterior Neck Pain
Specific neck conditions that can lead to pain in the front of the neck include torticollis, an issue where the muscles in the neck spasm and cause stiffness and pain and often an abnormal posture, such as tilting of the head to one side. Cervical spinal stenosis may also trigger neck pain, and can be caused by osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, disc herniation, acute spinal trauma (such as whiplash), ankylosing spondylitis, spondylolisthesis, and other conditions affecting the structures of the cervical spine.
Illnesses like meningitis, fibromyalgia, and shingles (herpes zoster) can also lead to pain in the front of the neck, as can throat cancer, Scarlet fever, toxic shock syndrome, and even Bird Flu, West Nile virus and Cat Scratch disease.
Allergens and Neck Pain
For some people, allergies, smoke exposure, and acute sinus inflammation can cause neck pain, either through the inflammation itself or through repeated neck trauma from sneezing and/or coughing. These may be associated with chest tightness and breathing difficulties, making them hard to distinguish from a heart attack or other acute illness.
Broken Bones and Other Neck Pain Triggers
Although it is unlikely for someone to break their collarbone without realising, this injury may also be a cause of pain in the front of the neck. Osteomyelitis (bone infection), and bone cancer can also lead to such pain.
Other causes of anterior neck pain include swallowing of a foreign object, nodules on the thyroid gland, vocal cords, or elsewhere in the neck, tick bites or insect bites, osteoporosis, aortic dissection, and simply sleeping or sitting next to an open window or air conditioning unit for too long.
When to Seek Help for Neck Pain
Immediate medical assistance (calling 911) should be sought by anyone experiencing pain in the front of the neck accompanied by:
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or passing out
- Vomiting or nausea
- Fever, cold sweats, or very pale skin
- Malaise, fatigue, or feelings of panic, fear, unease or doom
- Changes in vision
- Chest pain, pressure, tightness or discomfort
- Pain moving or spreading from the neck to the shoulders, arms, back, teeth or jaw.
Those whose pain the front of the neck is sudden, severe, or a result of an accident like a fall or whiplash should also seek medical help.