What are the possible effects of letting neck pain go untreated?

Matthew F. McCarty, MD

Most neck pain is self-limited. That means it will likely go away in several days to a week with rest, stretching and NSAIDs. Neck pain that returns or persists could have underlying causes such as myofascial pain and spasm, degenerative disc disease, disc herniation or bulges, arthritis or more rarely tumor or infection. An interventional pain specialist can investigate, determine and help manage the pain caused by many of these conditions.

The effects of letting neck pain go include development of chronic headaches, interrupted sleep, secondary hypertension, disrupted social interaction which can all lead to missed days from work and eventual disability. Headaches are the number one reason for lost work time according to the American productivity audit from 2001-2002. Another survey done in 2003 showed that among the major adjustments that chronic pain sufferers have made include taking disability from work(20%),changing jobs altogether(17%)getting help with activities of daily living (13%)and moving to home that’s easier to manage(13%).

Akash Bajaj, MD

Neck Pain can arise from several different sources. Most of the time, neck pain is self-limited and will resolve on its own if left untreated. This can occur from a few days to a few weeks. However if neck pain is consistent or if it is increasing in frequency or intensity, then there may be something greater going on. Several different pain generators may be involved, including herniated disc, degenerated disc, arthritis or joint disease, muscle sprain or strain, spinal stenosis, and others. Additionally in association with neck pain if there is a component of shooting pain or numbness in the shoulder, arm, or hand there may be another indication to consider a comprehensive workup. Also, if an inciting incident is present, that may help with diagnosis and treatment. Ideally, a pain management physician can assist with workup, diagnosis, and treatment. 

Treatment is directed towards the inciting factor or factors.

If one of the above processes is occurring and neck pain is left untreated, progression of that process can occur. That progression may result in increased pain, or decreased functioning. Also, other manifestations such as insomnia, headache, shoulder pain and/or compensation can occur. However, as stated earlier, most neck pain is self-limited and will resolve spontaneously.


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.