Severe Neck Pain

There are many causes of severe neck pain, which can be both acute and chronic. Some of these problems may only be short-lived, whilst some can indicate a serious underlying dysfunctional state.

Acute Causes of Severe Neck Pain

Severe Neck Pain

Involvement in an accident where the neck is impacted in some fashion is likely to cause severe neck pain. Motor vehicle collisions, or falls from a bike, chair, or a horse, can cause whiplash and neck pain which may be acute and lead to chronic problems. Injuries from contact sports like football, or martial arts may cause muscle tears and strains, as can over-training at the gym.

If severe neck pain is felt whilst exercising, it is important to stop and check to ensure that any equipment is being used safely and correctly. Unfamiliarity with gym equipment can lead to poor posture and incorrect usage, with ramifications for shoulder, neck, and back pain. Over time this could lead to uneven muscle tone, and require realignment and physical therapy from a professional such as a chiropractor or osteopath.

Warming Up – Even for Yoga!

Even supposedly ‘gentle’ exercise, such as yoga, can cause severe neck pain if warm-ups are not conducted thoroughly to get the circulation going to the muscles and to gently stretch the limbs prior to attempting any more extreme stretches. A good yoga instructor will generally begin a class with the more gentle warm-up exercises and advance as the class warms up.

Swimmers and Neck Pain

Swimming can also pose a potential risk of severe neck pain as many people strain to keep their heads out of the water whilst swimming, forming an unnatural shape to the neck and straining the muscles in both the neck and shoulders. If it seems difficult to find a comfortable head and neck position when swimming then it may be worth talking to an instructor at the pool to try and adapt the style of swimming that causes the strain. Unfortunately, when swimming it is easy to keep pushing and doing more and more lengths, whilst simultaneously reinforcing a postural problem by creating/maintaining uneven muscle tone. It is quite difficult to alter the style of swimming after years of doing it one particular way; it is never too late to try though.

Inflammation and Severe Neck Pain

If inflammation is present then there may be a number of reasons for the experience of severe neck pain. Problems with infected lymph nodes, neck glands, and cervical spinal tissues can all contribute to acute, and chronic, severe neck pain. Whether this is right-sided neck pain, centralised, or ubiquitous, it is important to discover its aetiology, so as to address the underlying issue. Inflammation may be reduced through the use of cold/ice packs, or NSAIDs. Alternative anti-inflammatories may also be useful, such as Devil’s Claw, Fish Oil, Capsaicin, Glucosamine, and MSM (methylsulphonylmethane).

Specific Conditions Causing Severe Neck Pain

With some degenerative spinal conditions, such as spinal stenosis, and ankylosing spondylitis, the pain may escalate from mildly irritating to severe within a number of weeks or months. It may be that neck surgery can rectify some of the problematic compression involved with these sorts of conditions, and lessen the amount of pain medication the patient uses. Epidural injections are rarely used for cervical spine problems, due to the complexity of the anatomy of the neck.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a potential cause of severe neck pain, which is sometimes left undiagnosed due to the myriad nature of the syndrome’s symptomatology. This involves a problem with the neurovascular system in the neck and can result in both chronic low-level pain, and acute, severe pain, alongside other symptoms.


If the lymph nodes are inflamed, then there is likely to be an infection causing inflammation and pain. As the lymphatic system has a high concentration of lymph nodes in the neck it is likely that these nodes will become inflamed before noticing any other symptoms in the body. It may be that the inflammation of a particular node causes pressure on a nerve or other structures and that this is what causes neck pain.

Dental abscesses, or even cavities exposed to heat or cold, can send acute and severe pain signals throughout the neck. If the neck pain is more severe when eating then it is likely a trip to the dentist will uncover the source of the pain.

Thyroid Problems

As the thyroid gland is located in the neck, around the oesophagus, any problem with this key body system can lead to issues with the neck. If the thyroid is underactive then the gland may increase in size, creating a goitre (swelling of the neck), which can then put pressure on the other structures, such as the oesophagus, vocal cords, arteries, veins, and nerves.

In the case of severe neck pain, medical attention should be sought to address the problem. If there is no clear reason for the pain, i.e. getting tackled roughly during football practice, then see a doctor immediately. Even if low levels of this type of neck pain are experienced due to a chronic condition, a sudden escalation to severe pain can indicate an acute problem and change in the structures of the neck and its tissues; this also necessitates immediate medical attention.