Neck pain and back pain are among the most common reasons for physician visits. This discussion covers neck pain involving the posterior neck (not pain limited to the anterior neck) and does not cover most major traumatic injuries (eg, fractures, dislocations, subluxations).


Depending on the cause, neck or back pain may be accompanied by neurologic symptoms.

If a nerve root is affected, pain may radiate distally along the distribution of that root (called radicular pain or, in the low back, sciatica). Strength, sensation, and reflexes of the area innervated by that root may be impaired.

If the spinal cord is affected, strength, sensation, and reflexes may be impaired at the affected spinal cord level and all levels below (called segmental neurologic deficits).

If the cauda equina is affected, segmental deficits develop in the lumbosacral region, typically with loss of bowel and bladder function, loss of perianal sensation, erectile dysfunction, urinary retention, and loss of rectal tone and sphincter (eg, bulbocavernosus, anal wink) reflexes.

Any painful disorder of the spine may also cause reflex tightening (spasm) of paraspinal muscles, which can be excruciating.

Neck pain and back pain


Most neck and back pain is caused by disorders of the spine. Fibromyalgia is also a common cause. Occasionally, pain is referred from extraspinal disorders (particularly vascular, GI, or GU disorders). Some uncommon causes—spinal and extraspinal—are serious.

Most spinal disorders are mechanical. Only a few involve infection, inflammation, or cancer (considered nonmechanical).

Common causes: Most mechanical spine disorders that cause neck or back pain involve a nonspecific mechanical derangement:

Muscle strain, ligament sprain, spasm, or a combination

Only about 15% involve specific structural lesions that clearly cause the symptoms, primarily the following:

Disk herniation

Compression fracture

Lumbar spinal stenosis



In the other mechanical disorders, there are no specific lesions, or the findings (eg, disk bulging or degeneration, osteophytes, spondylolysis, congenital facet abnormalities) are common among people without neck or back pain, and thus are questionable as the etiology of pain. However, etiology of back pain, particularly if mechanical, is often multifactorial, with an underlying disorder exacerbated by fatigue, physical deconditioning, and sometimes psychosocial stress or psychiatric abnormality. Thus, identifying a single cause is often difficult or impossible.

Serious uncommon causes: Serious causes may require timely treatment to prevent disability or death.

Serious extraspinal disorders include the following:

Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Aortic dissection

Carotid or vertebral artery dissection

Acute meningitis

Angina or MI

Certain GI disorders (eg, cholecystitis, diverticulitis, diverticular abscess, pancreatitis, penetrating peptic ulcer, retrocecal appendicitis)

Certain pelvic disorders (eg, ectopic pregnancy, ovarian cancer, salpingitis)

Certain pulmonary disorders (eg, pleuritis, pneumonia)

Certain urinary tract disorders (eg, prostatitis, pyelonephritis)

Serious spinal disorders include the following:

Infections (eg, diskitis, epidural abscess, osteomyelitis)

Primary tumors (of spinal cord or vertebrae)

Metastatic vertebral tumors (most often from breasts, lungs, or prostate)

Mechanical spine disorders can be serious if they compress the spinal nerve roots or, particularly, the spinal cord. Spinal cord compression may result from disorders such as tumors and spinal epidural abscess or hematoma.

Other uncommon causes: Neck or back pain can result from many other disorders, such as Paget’s disease of bone, torticollis, thoracic outlet syndrome, temporomandibular joint syndrome, herpes zoster, and spondyloarthropathies (ankylosing spondylitis most often, but also enteropathic arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, and undifferentiated spondyloarthropathy).


General: Because the cause is often multifactorial, a definitive diagnosis cannot be established in many patients. However, clinicians should determine the following if possible:

Whether pain has a spinal or extraspinal cause

Whether the cause is a serious disorder