Reasons for Neck Pain that Radiates

Reasons for Neck Pain that Radiates

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Radiating neck pain may stem from a compressed nerve.

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Neck pain is a common problem, although its prevalence varies among populations and age groups. A June 2006 review in the "European Spine Journal" reported that the average lifetime risk for developing neck pain is nearly 50 percent. Neck pain can stem from various causes, ranging from minor injuries to chronic degenerative disorders or life-threatening diseases. Neck pain that radiates into your head, arm, upper back or chest may be a symptom of a compressed nerve.

Nerve Irritation

Doctors use the term radiculopathy when referring to symptoms caused by compression or irritation of a nerve as it emerges from your spinal cord. Cervical radiculopathy is a more specific phrase used to describe the signs and symptoms generated by compression of a nerve root in your neck. The most common symptoms of cervical radiculopathy are pain and unusual sensations -- cold, warmth, numbness, tingling or electrical shocks -- that often radiate toward or into the arms.


Like the rest of your spine, your neck is composed of several stacked, bony vertebrae, each of which is separated from its upper and lower neighbors by tough cartilage discs. Each vertebra has a backward-projecting arch through which your spinal cord passes. At each level of your spine, a pair of nerve roots emerges from portals between the arches of adjacent vertebrae.

The complex joints between the arches of your vertebrae are subject to injury and arthritis, just like joints elsewhere in your body. When arthritis causes bony overgrowth of the nerve portals, the emerging nerves may get compressed. Cervical spondylosis, or arthritis, is a leading cause of cervical radiculopathy, according to doctors at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery in an article in the October 2011 issue of the hospital's "HSS Journal."

Disc Herniation

The discs separating your cervical vertebrae are composed of an outer ring of tough cartilage and an inner "pulp" of softer, elastic material. As you age, the discs in your neck lose moisture and their outer rings weaken. A tear or break in the ring may allow the pulpy center to protrude. This condition, called a herniated or ruptured disc, can lead to compression of the nerve emerging from between adjacent vertebrae. A December 2010 review in the "Journal of Korean Neurosurgical Society" reported that approximately 1 in 5 cases of degenerative cervical radiculopathy are due to a herniated disc.

Unusual Causes

A number of unusual conditions can trigger radiating neck pain. Pancoast tumor -- a cancer occurring in the uppermost portion of the lung -- can compress your cervical nerve roots and cause neck, shoulder and arm pain. Likewise, cancer invading your cervical spine or the structures around it can generate neck pain that radiates to your upper extremities. Cervical ribs -- abnormal ribs that protrude from your cervical vertebrae -- can compress a cervical nerve and generate neck and arm pain. Instability of your cervical vertebrae, such as sometimes occurs in people with rheumatoid arthritis, can trigger neck pain that radiates to your head, ear or eye.

Due to the many potential causes for cervical radiculopathy, any persistent neck pain, whether it radiates or not, should be evaluated by a health care professional.