Cervical Spinal Stenosis - Mayo Clinic
How Neck Pain is Diagnosed
If your neck has been hurting for a while, it's time to find a doctor who can diagnose and treat the cause of your neck pain.
By Krisha McCoy
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Neck pain that is intense or persistent, regardless of whether it began out of the blue or occurred after an injury, needs to be evaluated by a medical professional who is qualified to make a neck pain diagnosis.
Neck Pain: Do You Need a Specialist?
If your neck pain is the result of a traumatic event like a car accident, a medical professional should immediately stabilize your neck to prevent additional injury and transport you to a hospital for a full evaluation.
If your neck pain begins gradually — in the absence of an obvious injury or accident — it's usually a good idea to see your primary care doctor first. Depending on what they think the underlying condition is, your family doctor may be able to diagnose and treat your neck pain.
In more complicated cases, however, when the cause of your pain is less straightforward or when neck surgery or other procedures may be required, your primary care doctor may refer you to a physician with neck pain expertise:
- Orthopedic surgeon.Also called orthopedists, these doctors have been trained to help prevent, diagnose, and treat problems that involve your muscles, bones, and joints.
- Neurosurgeon.Neurosurgeons perform surgical procedures on the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. If your neck pain is due to an injury of the spinal cord or the bones that surround the cord, a neurosurgeon may become involved in your care.
- Pain management specialist.Pain management specialists, or physiatrists, are specially trained to treat and help people manage longstanding, or chronic, pain.
- Rehabilitation specialist.Rehabilitation specialists are doctors who specialize in helping people regain physical strength and function after a severe injury due to trauma or conditions like a stroke.
Neck Pain: Diagnosing the Cause
When you first see your doctor about your neck pain, he or she will take a medical history and do a comprehensive physical exam.
Your doctor will ask you detailed questions about your symptoms and review your previous medical records to see if past conditions or accidents may be contributing to your neck pain.
During the physical exam, your doctor will evaluate your neck movement, determine which neck positions increase your pain, pinpoint areas of neck tenderness, and examine other parts of your body, like your arms and legs, to see if you are having additional symptoms. The physical exam may involve:
- Having you move your head in various directions
- Having you push your hands or shoulders against manual resistance
- Determining if your sense of touch has been affected by your neck pain
- Testing your reflexes
- Watching you walk forward and backward
Neck Pain: Special Diagnostic Tests
Depending on the results of your physical exam, your doctor may have you undergo additional tests, including:
- X-raysto take pictures of the bones inside your neck
- Computed tomography (CT) scan,a special type of X-ray to give your doctor a close look at the bones in your neck that encase your spinal cord
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) ,an imaging study that enables your doctor to view your spinal cord and the nerves in your neck
- Electromyography (EMG) ,a test used to examine the functioning of the nerves and muscles in and around your neck
- Myelography,the use of X-rays and the injection of a special dye into your spinal canal to better evaluate your spine and nerves
- Blood tests,ordered if your doctor suspects that a specific type of arthritis, thyroid problem, or infection is causing your neck pain
- Lumbar puncture,also called a spinal tap, if neck pain is accompanied by fever, headache, and sensitivity to light, all symptoms of meningitis. If your doctor is concerned about this possibility, you will likely be sent to the emergency room to undergo a lumbar puncture.
Neck pain is common and can be caused by a number of conditions, ranging from minor muscle strain to severe infection or nerve damage. The only way to get to the source of your neck pain is to see your doctor for a complete evaluation.
Video: Diagnosing Neck & Shoulder Pain - Dr. Stephen Gardner
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