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Neck pain

Learn about the common causes of neck pain, when to see a specialist and what treatments are available.

Neck pain is a common problem, affecting people of all ages around the world. According to the British Medical Journal, a staggering 288.7 million were affected by neck pain in 2017.

Many people will experience some degree of neck pain at some stage in their lives, although this will often be mild or will resolve naturally over time. For neck pain that does not go away or gets worse, it is a good idea to get a medical assessment to make sure it's not being caused by a serious underlying problem, particularly if your neck pain is limiting your movement or significantly affecting daily life.

Neck pain can have many causes, including a problem in the shoulder, a pulled muscle in the neck, osteoarthritis, poor posture or a nerve becoming trapped in the spine. If you are worried about your neck pain and what's causing it, one of our experienced consultants can help you to find the root of the problem.

Book online or call today and you could be having your initial consultation at a Circle Health Group hospital within 48 hours. Our specialists offer fast diagnosis, rapid access to the treatment you need, and the reassurance of aftercare so you know you're supported through recovery too.

Don't wait for neck pain treatment. Go private with Circle.

Neck pain statistics

So how common is neck pain? Here, we will have a brief look at some studies and surveys that help give an idea of the number of people affected by neck pain.

NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) has some fascinating statistics about neck pain:

  • Up to 70% of the population will suffer neck pain at some point in their lives
  • Prevalence peaks between the ages of 45 and 54
  • It is more common in women

In 2017, Public Health England carried out a survey of adults with chronic (i.e. long-term) pain, and 24% of those surveyed said they experienced pain in their neck or shoulder.

In a study for NHS Health Scotland, it was estimated that 101,000 individuals in Scotland were living with neck pain. In the same study, they calculated that 32,472 Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) were lost to neck pain in Scotland each year.

Using just these figures, it is clear that neck pain is a significant problem across the UK.

Pain is never a pleasant thing to experience, even when relatively mild. While many people can cope with pain when it is short-lived, longer-term (chronic) pain can be a source of frustration, worry, anxiety, and anger or may lead to depression.

Neck pain can affect every aspect of daily life and may limit the activities you can do. For example, you may:

  • Find it difficult to drive, as you cannot comfortably turn your head to check left and right at a road junction
  • Have difficulty finding a comfortable position to sleep at night
  • No longer be able to take part in a sport or exercise you enjoy, like swimming, rugby or running, because it aggravates your neck pain

If your neck pain has an obvious cause, like doing too much gardening or sleeping with your head at a funny angle, you probably will not worry too much about it. You may assume the pain will settle down and wear off naturally over a few days.

If you have neck pain that has started unexpectedly, with no obvious cause, you may be more concerned about getting medical advice.

'Neck pain' is a broad term and covers many different types of pain. For example, your neck pain may be:

  • Dull or sharp
  • In only one specific point or spread more widely across it
  • Constant or sporadic
  • Getting worse over time

You may have pain only in your neck, or spread more widely to your shoulders, back or arm.

Neck anatomy

Your spine comprises a series of small bones (vertebrae), discs, nerves, joints, ligaments and muscles. In addition to being the central support structure of the body, it is incredibly complex.

Your neck is found at the uppermost part of your spine. Referred to as the cervical spine, this consists of 7 vertebrae (referred to as C1 - C7). These vertebrae are linked by facet joints, which enable your neck to move in any direction as you look down, up or sideways. The vertebrae support your head and provide protection for the spinal cord, and each one is separated by an intervertebral disc made of cartilage.

Given the complex structures within the neck, it is no wonder that neck pain is a common problem. Many problems in the neck are mechanical in origin, caused by 'wear and tear' degeneration. However, very rarely there may be a link to a more serious condition that shouldn't be ignored.

There are many reasons you may have neck and shoulder pain, including:

Trauma or injury

Sometimes it will be obvious why you have pain. For example, if you are playing football and get knocked over by a sliding tackle, you may end up falling onto your arm and/or shoulder. If after the fall you have pain in your shoulder and neck, it is highly likely that the impact is responsible. (See also 'Whiplash' below.)


This could be included under the 'Trauma or injury' bullet point above but has been given its own section for clarity.

Whiplash is a common cause of neck pain. Its name is due to it being caused by a fast 'whip-like' movement of your head and/or neck to the front, side or back. Whiplash usually occurs in a road traffic accident, after having a nasty fall or trip (often onto a hard surface like a pavement) or following a collision while playing contact sports.

Any time your head and neck are subject to a sudden, violent movement, whiplash may develop.

Whiplash involves widespread and ongoing pain in the neck, spine and (sometimes) the shoulder. Unlike other injuries, it doesn't normally involve any obvious physical damage to the bones, muscles or ligaments and so treatment tends to be by physiotherapy. The speed somebody recovers from whiplash varies but it can take several months.


If you do a lot of activity in a short space of time, or do more activity than you are used to, you may damage a muscle, ligament or tendon in or around the neck. Even simple activities like gardening or painting can end up causing neck pain, as can many sports and exercises, particularly those involving weights or lots of shoulder movements.

'Wear and tear'

As you age, your joints experience natural 'wear and tear'. Certain conditions such as osteoarthritis can contribute to that happening more quickly than normal.

Referred pain

Neck pain can be caused by a problem elsewhere in the body, commonly the shoulder. This is known as referred pain. Examples of referred pain are:

  • A frozen shoulder causing pain in the shoulder, arm and neck
  • A trapped nerve in the neck causing pain, numbness and/or tingling in your shoulder or along the arm

Mr Nick Fernandez, a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon, has been diagnosing and treating neck pain for many years. He knows the value of ruling out referred pain:

"You have to be careful when you're examining a shoulder to check that the pain isn't coming from the neck. Giveaway signs would be slightly abnormal distribution of pain, numbness, tingling and/or some neck pain or stiffness.

"If somebody has shoulder and neck pain, I'd want to exclude a cardiac cause. If the blood supply to your heart isn't brilliant, you may get pain that goes up into your neck and your shoulder."

Whether you know what has caused your neck pain or not, expert assessment can bring you peace of mind about suitable treatments. Your Circle Health Group consultant will help you get the answers - and pain relief - you need.

As the statistics on this page show, many people will experience a sore or stiff neck at some point. You won't always need to see a doctor.

Mr Fernandez advises seeing a doctor for assessment if your neck pain is severe, has come on suddenly and for no obvious reason, or has been going on for more than a few weeks.

If you have any concerns about neck pain, a private consultation with a specialist at your local Circle Health Group hospital is a sensible option. Why not book your consultation today?

With any pain, an accurate diagnosis is crucial. Once the cause of the pain is known, options can be discussed and treatment decisions made.

When you meet your consultant at Circle, they will talk with you in detail about your symptoms. To help them get the information they need, they may ask you questions like:

  • When did you first notice your neck pain?
  • Was there an obvious cause for the pain or has it come on without warning?
  • Have you ever had a similar type of pain in your neck and shoulder?
  • Have you had an injury to your neck or shoulder previously?
  • Do you have any other symptoms (even if they're seemingly unrelated to your neck and shoulder pain)?
  • Do any specific movements make your neck pain worse?
  • Have you received any treatment for your neck pain already?

Your initial consultation will usually involve moving your head and neck (and shoulder if you have pain there also) into different positions to help them see where and when you have pain.

Additional tests may be needed to help confirm the cause of your pain, and these could include:

Every Circle Health Group hospital offers fast access to any diagnostic investigations needed, and our on-site radiologists are able to provide prompt reporting of any scans.

Once any results are back and a diagnosis has been confirmed, your consultant will discuss treatment options with you to determine the best way forward.

Depending on the severity of your neck pain and its cause, treatment may be non-surgical (conservative) or surgical. In Mr Fernandez's experience, most people with neck pain will only require non-surgical treatments. Treatments to relieve neck pain include:


Sometimes, something as simple as resting your shoulders and neck can ease symptoms. This is often the case if your neck pain has been caused by overuse.

Pain relief

Paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen will often help to reduce pain in the neck or shoulder. Before you take any medication, you should always check it is safe for you to do so. If you have any queries, please speak with a pharmacist or doctor for help and advice.

Stronger pain medication may be prescribed by your consultant if appropriate.


Many neck problems are caused by damage or imbalance in the muscles and other soft tissues in the neck.

A physiotherapist can tailor an exercise programme for you to help strengthen and stabilise your neck and shoulder muscles. A course of physiotherapy can often reduce neck pain and improve mobility in and around your shoulder and neck.

Improving your posture

Neck (and shoulder) pain is often caused by poor posture. Sitting with your shoulders slumped forwards and back hunched can, over time, cause problems with neck muscles, spinal nerves and more.

A physiotherapist can help to improve and correct your posture. Whether you have forward head posture or a hunched back, they can tailor a programme of exercises and stretches just for you. As your posture improves, your neck pain may also improve.

Injection therapy

If your neck pain is being referred from your shoulder, a corticosteroid injection into the shoulder may help ease your pain. The corticosteroid provides pain relief and acts as an anti-inflammatory. The effects will wear off over time.

Cervical spine surgery

Surgery will not be needed for most people with neck pain. For more serious causes of neck pain, such as a herniated cervical disc, surgery may be advised. Your consultant will discuss this with you if surgery would be an option.

The cost of your neck pain treatment will depend on various factors, including which treatments you need and the cause of your neck pain, as well as where you choose to have treatment.

If you have private health insurance, the cost of your neck pain treatment may be covered by your policy. You should speak directly to your insurer to find out.

If you are paying for your own treatment, we will put together a fixed-price package once you have your diagnosis. This does not include your initial consultation or any diagnostic tests, but it does include all treatment and follow-up appointments, as well as six months of aftercare if you need it.

We offer flexible payment options that allow you to spread the cost of treatment over a period of one to five years, so you'll pay monthly instead of all at once - making private healthcare affordable.

As the UK's largest network of private hospitals, Circle Health Group offers rapid access to consultant-led care, experienced physiotherapy teams, advanced diagnostic equipment and a wider healthcare team including radiologists, anaesthetists and pain management specialists.

If you are struggling with pain, stiffness or another issue in or around your neck, it is sensible to see a specialist for assessment and advice. We can help you get the support you need without delay.

When you choose to go private with Circle, you'll benefit from:

  • Fast access to the consultant of your choice
  • Flexible appointment times to suit your schedule
  • Consultant-led treatment from start to finish
  • Private ensuite rooms as standard, with wifi and TV included
  • Delicious, healthy meals cooked onsite to your dietary requirements
  • Free parking and generous visiting hours
  • Flexible payment options, so you can spread the cost of treatment

It is quick and easy to book a private consultation at your local Circle Health Group hospital. Consultations are available Monday - Friday, and many Circle Health Group hospitals offer evening and Saturday clinics too.

If you would like to see a specific consultant, this is easy to arrange. This may be because they have been recommended to you by a friend or family member, or because you have seen them previously and would like to see them again.

Book online today or give us a call on the number above.

Content reviewed by Circle in-house team in August 2022. Next review due August 2025.

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