Neck Pain: Facts & Fiction
(Frequently Asked Questions About Neck Pain)
By Dean Moyer
Author of Rebuild Your Neck
Understanding neck pain and the associated symptoms of upper back, arm and shoulder pain is the first step towards overcoming the problem. Getting the right answers is imperative. You need accurate information that is factual and complete if you're going to successfully rebuild your neck.
I have compiled a list of some common questions and answers about neck pain to help you quickly find the information you're seeking. Where possible I've provided links to related articles that discuss the various topics in greater detail.
Question: Will an x-ray, MRI or CT scan show what is causing my neck pain?
Answer: No, those images cannot actually detect what is causing your pain and, what's more, can often be misleading.
There has been a great deal of research conducted over the past two decades that has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that expensive imaging modalities are entirely unnecessary when it comes to diagnosing neck pain. These studies have shown that x-rays, MRIs, CT scans and myeolograms are often useless and yes… even misleading… and, therefore, they are not a good way to diagnose back or neck pain.
Your family physician can rule out all serious causes of back or neck pain using nothing more than your medical history and a simple physical exam. For more on this see, Abnormalities are Normal.
Question: Is a bulging or herniated disc causing my neck pain?
Answer: While it is possible that a bulging disc is part of the problem, we now know that there is an even greater likelihood that it is not.
The truth is, neck pain (and the associated symptoms of numbness, tingling or pain in the arm, shoulder or upper back) has many possible causes. Unfortunately, those other causes simply don't show up on any currently available diagnostic scans… but herniated discs do.
Numerous studies have been published in recent years that indicate that herniated discs seldom cause neck pain or neurologic disorders as was once assumed. 
Furthermore, we now have clinical proof that - if treated properly - herniated discs can and do heal… and will normally retract back to their original healthy shape. For more on this read, The Truth About Herniated Discs.
Question: Can chiropractic spinal manipulation relieve neck pain?
Answer: Spinal adjustments show little evidence of effectiveness in treating neck pain.
Despite its long history, chiropractic manipulation remains a very controversial topic.
On the one hand you have millions of loyal patients who fervently believe that chiropractic is doing them a world of good… and then on the other hand, you have a growing number of former patients who - after years of blind faith - have finally begun to wonder why it is they still have back and neck pain problems?
This failure of chiropractic to actually accomplish anything has led many people to question whether chiropractic is a valid medical practice at all.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one fact remains and that is that there has never been any clinical evidence to support the practice of chiropractic manipulation.  For more information see, Don't I Need a Chiropractor?.
Question: Are drugs an effective way to treat neck pain?
Answer: Medical research has shown that drugs provide little, if any, benefit in the treatment of neck pain.
More and more doctors are gradually becoming reluctant to prescribe medication for ordinary back or neck pain. The usual analgesics, NSAIDs, antidepressants, and muscle relaxants have simply failed to produce the desired results. [1, 10]
However, having said that there are times when limited use of a doctor recommended medication may be useful.
Question: Is acupuncture a viable alternative for treating neck pain?
Answer: No, there is no evidence to suggest that acupuncture is effective at relieving neck pain.
There have been a number of studies done over the years that have attempted to evaluate acupuncture's ability to relieve back and neck pain. So far, the overwhelming conclusion has been that it does not. 
It has been observed that any benefit the patient may perceive from the treatment can easily be duplicated with a placebo. Which would imply that suggestibility of the patient has more to do with the outcome than any real scientific or medical explanation.
Question: Should I wear a cervical collar to keep my neck stable while it heals?
Answer: Most doctors no longer use cervical collars to treat neck pain.
Immobilizing your neck in a cervical collar is exactly the opposite of what your neck needs to recover quickly. Studies have shown that people who wore cervical collars took longer to heal than someone who did not. [5,7]
Question: Will I require surgery?
Answer: Probably not… surgery is seldom the appropriate treatment for neck pain.
The only time surgery is necessary is when there is an immediate danger of paralysis or permanent nerve damage and your surgeon will make this perfectly clear to you at the time of your diagnosis. In fact, he will probably insist on scheduling you for immediate surgery that very day. These instances are extremely rare and chances are, if you're reading this, then that scenario doesn't apply to you. For more information read, Herniated Discs Don't Require Surgery. [5,7,8,9]
Question: How long does neck pain usually last?
Answer: That depends on the individual… no one can actually predict how long your neck pain symptoms will persist.
The pain from a neck injury can last anywhere from a few days to as long as several months. If a pinched nerve is involved, even after the pain is gone, it can still take another six months for the nerve itself to fully heal.
How long neck pain continues to be a problem for you will depend on how long it takes you to rebuild your neck. If left untreated, it can turn into a chronic problem that may take years to overcome.
Question: Shouldn't a good doctor be able to fix my neck?
Answer: Perhaps in a perfect world that would be true.
Every once in a while someone will write to me for advice and start out with something like, "Don't tell me to just see a doctor… because he probably won't be able to do anything about it anyway." Which to me just underscores a common misconception that many of us have about the role the doctor plays in dealing with back or neck pain.
The doctor isn't there "to do something about it" - that's going to be your job. He's there to make sure it isn't something serious. He (or she) is there to make sure it isn't something that you can't deal with on your own like a bone infection or a tumor. For more on this see, Back Pain is Not a Medical Problem.
Question: Why aren't there more neck pain articles on this site?
Answer: Actually there are, but they're disguised as back pain articles.
Let's face it; neck pain always gets the short shrift. Neck pain sufferers always have to take a back seat to the back pain victims. The reason for this isn't because no one cares about neck pain. It's just that back pain is more common. It outnumbers incidences of neck pain by about 4 to 1. So it's only natural that it would get more attention.
Don't let the names fool you, many of the articles on this website that have the phrase "back pain" in the title… also apply to neck pain. So, just because some of the articles seem to be only about back pain, don't let that dissuade you from reading them.
It's been said, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." Nowhere is this more apparent than in reconditioning your neck. It's an indisputable fact that no one can do it for you.
I hope that the above information has helped answer your questions about neck pain, upper back pain, arm and shoulder pain.
About the Author
Rebuild Your Back
Rebuild Your Neck
The Pain Relief Manual
1. Binder A. Neck pain. American Family Physician Vol. 71/No. 1 [Jan 2005]
2. Overview of Neck Pain. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 
3. What a Pain in the Neck! American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 
4. Acupuncture for neck and back pain. Oxford University Medical School. Bandolier Journal. [Sep 2000]
5. Pain in the Neck. Arthritis Research Campaign [Jan 2004]
6. Back and Neck Pain. Weill Medical College of Cornell University [Jan 2005]
7. Shmerling R, What to do about Neck Pain. Harvard Medical School 
8. Neck Pain. Your Orthopaedic Connection. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. 
9. Neck Pain: Treatment. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. [May 2004]
10. Neck Pain. All about Back & Neck Pain. DePuy Spine. 
Last updated: July 31, 2006