Neck pain is a common condition associated with pain or tenderness in the neck and shoulders. The neck comprises seven cervical (neck) bones, supported by muscles, ligaments, and other tissues. If any of these structures are impacted, it can cause neck pain on the left side.
Symptoms might include stiffness, aching, reduced range, and shooting pain in the left arm that can feel like an electric shock. It may become difficult to move the head or complete everyday activities.
A common cause is a muscle strain, but left-side neck pain may also be caused by an underlying condition or disease, such as arthritis or spinal stenosis. In some rare cases, it can be caused by a more serious medical condition.
Normally, the pain in the left side of the neck resolves independently. Sometimes, a health practitioner can discuss further options to diagnose and treat the pain.
Read more about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of left-side neck pain.
What are the symptoms of left-side neck pain?
The symptoms and severity of neck pain may vary depending on the cause of the problem. Common symptoms may include:
What causes left-side neck pain?
Several different conditions can cause pain in the left side of the neck. Causes of left-side neck pain include:
1. Muscle strain
Pain in the left side of the neck can be caused by a muscle strain, where the muscles in the neck become overstretched or overloaded. This may occur with long periods spent sitting with poor posture at a computer, talking with the phone cradled on the shoulder, or sleeping in an awkward position. Repetitive tasks may also cause muscle strain.
Risk factors contributing to a muscle strain include:
Often, the left-side neck pain can resolve on its own with time or with simple treatments. However, it may require medical input if there is severe or persistent pain.
2. Pinched nerve
Many nerves travel through the neck region. These nerves can become trapped, compressed, or pinched. The broad term to describe this is cervical radiculopathy; however, it is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve. Symptoms can include radiating pain, shooting or tingling in the left arm, and in some cases, arm weakness or even muscle wasting.
A pinched nerve can develop over time with overuse or poor posture. It can also be caused by trauma, such as an accident.
3. Acute torticollis (wry neck)
Acute torticollis, commonly known as a wry neck, occurs when the muscles supporting the neck tighten or cramp, causing the neck to become stiff and turn towards one side. It is then difficult and painful to move the neck, and the pain can affect everyday activities.
Sometimes, there is no obvious cause or injury. However, it can be triggered by sleeping in an odd position overnight, often without much head support. It can also be caused by poor neck posture or, in rare cases, very cold temperatures.
Recovery from acute torticollis is usually good, and symptoms often resolve within a few days. Stretching exercises, heat, massage, and analgesia may be helpful to relieve the pain and restore function in the neck.
4. Cervical joint degeneration
Degenerative joint disease, also known as osteoarthritis, is a progressive condition that occurs with age or injury. It is common in the cervical region and can cause left-side neck pain.
It occurs when the cartilage and discs in the neck stiffen or degrade. The discs in the neck are tough fibrous tissue that absorbs load and helps the neck move smoothly. Over time or with injury, these discs can stiffen and become less flexible.
Some people with joint changes may have no symptoms at all. However, it can cause pain, stiffness, inflammation, and other symptoms in other cases. It is a condition that needs to be monitored and managed over time. A doctor may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation and help with the pain.
5. Herniated cervical disc
A herniated disc occurs when fibrocartilaginous tissue extrudes from a spinal joint and compresses the nerves travelling in that area. A herniation can occur over time, with general ageing, or suddenly, such as after an accident or lifting injury.
In symptomatic cases, a disc herniation can cause left-side neck pain, alongside sharp or radiating pain into the left arm. Numbness and tingling may also be experienced, and occasionally it can become painful to move the left arm. In some severe cases, a herniated disc may require surgery.
6. Spinal stenosis
Spinal stenosis describes a narrowing of the bony passages in the spinal column. This can occur from ageing, disease, arthritis, or a tumour or infection in rare cases.
Spinal stenosis can compress nerves in the neck, causing pain that radiates into the left arm. In more severe cases, it can cause numbness or weakness in the left arm.
Whiplash is a traumatic cause of neck pain. It occurs when a sudden force whips the head back and forth. This can occur from a car accident or in contact sports such as a football tackle.
Symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, arm pain or reduced sensation, and in some cases, dizziness, visual changes, and headaches. Whiplash should be investigated by a doctor. Depending on the severity of the whiplash, a doctor may prescribe a foam neck collar or brace.
8. Cervical fracture
Cervical fractures, commonly known as broken neck, usually occur in high-force situations, such as car crashes, falls, or sporting accidents. A cervical fracture requires emergency medical assistance as there is a serious risk of damage to the spinal cord and paralysis. Surgery or a brace may be required.
Risk factors for a cervical fracture include osteoporosis, or reduced bone density, which reduces the strength of the bones in the neck.
9. Spinal tumours
A spinal tumour, which can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous, is a growth that can form in the cervical region. In some cases, the tumour can cause bone pain or may compress the spinal nerves in the neck. There may be numbness, weakness, or even muscle wasting in advanced cases.
10. Heart attack
In rare cases, neck pain may signify a heart attack. This will usually coincide with other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, sweating, faintness, or jaw pain. A heart attack is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
Other causes of neck pain:
When to see a doctor
It is important to see a doctor if the pain on the left side of the neck is severe or persistent or if there are any unexplained symptoms.
In some cases, pain in the left side of the neck may require immediate medical attention. This includes if the pain is from an accident or injury, such as a fall, sports injury, or car accident.If there is any numbness or tingling, a loss of strength, loss of bladder or bowel control, fever, unbearable pain, vision or hearing changes, or severe headaches seek medical attention immediately
How left-side neck pain is diagnosed
There are many causes of pain in the left side of the neck. A health practitioner can review the history of the symptoms to determine the origin of the neck pain. A doctor can complete a physical examination to check reflexes, muscle power, sensation, and range of motion.
In some cases, your doctor may request further investigations to assess the neck and surrounding muscles, such as:
This can also help rule out the more serious causes of the pain. It is important to get a correct diagnosis before any treatment commences.
How left-side neck pain is treated
Treatment for left-side neck pain will depend on the cause and severity. A combination of treatments may be required to alleviate the symptoms.
Minor causes of left-side neck pain may resolve on their own. However, even minor symptoms can impact day-to-day activities and reduce the quality of life. The goal of treatment is to reduce any pain and symptoms.
Self-care and lifestyle strategies can help alleviate symptoms of left-side neck pain. This may include:
Sitting and standing with good posture
Using a supportive pillow for sleeping
Adjusting the chair and desk height for working
Avoiding heavy lifting
Going for short walks throughout the day
Using pain relief as appropriate
Heat or ice therapy might also be helpful.
Lifestyle changes can help to reduce neck pain. However, sometimes neck pain may not resolve easily. It may be helpful to seek assistance from a health practitioner who can address the emotional, social, and physical factors contributing to neck pain.
A physiotherapist can help alleviate symptoms of left-side neck pain and restore movement using various treatment methods. They may prescribe exercises to help improve the strength or length of the structures in the neck. Specific massage techniques may reduce pain and muscle tension and restore function. A physiotherapist may also suggest postural changes and other adjustments that prevent future neck problems.
Depending on the specific condition, a doctor may recommend a steroid injection to target symptoms in the affected joint. Steroids can provide short-term pain relief temporarily; continued injections are not usually recommended due to long-term health consequences.
In some situations, a doctor may recommend a review with a neurosurgeon. This is usually for severe and persistent pain if there is an underlying medical condition or when conservative treatment has not been successful.
Surgery may be helpful in some situations to treat compressed spinal nerves. In the case of an injury or accident, emergency surgery may be required to treat any fractures. The surgeon may request a brace be worn for some time after this.
Things to consider about neck pain
Pain on the left side of the neck is common and has many causes. Minor causes of neck pain can resolve with time and conservative treatments. It is important to discuss any symptoms with a health practitioner to rule out more serious causes of left-side neck pain.