While minor bumps and bruises are common during childhood, experiencing neck pain as a child can be startling. A range of things can cause neck pain in children, and it is vital to identify the cause to determine the best course of treatment.
Neck pain is often temporary and clears within 1 or 2 days without treatment. However, sometimes neck pain is chronic and can affect a child’s quality of life, social activities, and education.
Muscle strains in the neck may be due to rough play or looking down for extended periods, such as while on the phone or computer.
It is crucial to listen to the child when they describe their symptoms to help identify and treat the underlying cause of their neck pain.
Treatment for neck pain in children will depend on the underlying cause. In the short term, home remedies may help the child get relief.
Some simple home remedies may help treat mild to moderate neck pain in children.
If neck pain persists after a few days, heat may help. To use heat, place a warm compress or electric heating pad on the child’s neck for 10 minutes.
A warm bath may also help relax tight muscles and relieve pain.
A child may get some relief by stretching their neck throughout the day or by having a gentle massage.
Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications have formulas that are safe for children. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), may also help relieve pain.
Be sure to follow the instructions on the label and avoid giving young children adult-strength versions of these medications unless a doctor recommends it.
Some lifestyle changes can help prevent neck pain.
For children who use smartphones or other technological devices for long periods, the following adjustments may help align the neck and reduce pain:
- lying down on the back while looking at a cell phone to relieve pressure on the neck
- keeping the phone at eye level when sitting or standing to keep the back and neck straight
- taking regular screen breaks to ease pressure on the neck and allow the eyes to rest
Stretching may also help. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest trying the following exercises for 3 minutes each day:
- touching the chin to each shoulder
- touching the ear to each shoulder
- moving the head forward and backward
A child should perform these stretches slowly and not apply any resistance. If the exercises cause any pain, they should not continue.
Some children may also need to change their sleeping position. Some changes may include:
- sleeping on their back or side instead of their front
- sleeping on their side with a pillow between their knees
- sleeping with a small, flat neck pillow instead of a large one
Possible causes of neck pain in children include:
Posture and “text neck”
Poor posture may lead to neck pain, especially in children who stay in one position for extended periods, such as while sitting at a computer, using a smartphone, or watching television.
Long periods spent looking down at a smartphone, studying, or reading a book may also contribute to neck pain.
Any movement that involves leaning the head forward and down puts pressure on the neck.
As researchers point out, having musculoskeletal pain as a child can signal that the child may have similar problems as an adult.
Without treatment, the child may have trouble with chronic pain, sometimes into adulthood.
Physical activities, such as rough play or sports, are common sources of minor injuries in children.
Falling, hitting their head, or odd movements during physical activity may be enough to cause a minor sprain in the neck. A doctor should evaluate any neck pain that occurs after a significant injury.
A child may sleep in a position that causes pain in their neck, shoulders, or back due to a muscle strain.
The pain is often temporary but can cause significant problems with everyday activities. The child may have difficulty turning their head from one side to the other, and may not be able to do simple things such as wear a backpack or look down to read.
Swollen lymph nodes
The lymph nodes swell in response to simple infections, such as the cold, flu, or strep throat. Swollen lymph nodes can cause pain on one or both sides of the neck, usually just under the ears and jawline.
OTC pain medication can help relieve symptoms of a common cold or flu. For infections that do not improve over time, it is best to see a doctor, who may prescribe antibiotics or another treatment.
Meningitis can be life-threatening if a person does not receive medical attention. Other signs of meningitis include:
- a headache
- problems eating
A child experiencing sudden neck pain with a high fever should see a doctor immediately.
Lyme disease may cause neck pain. Caregivers of children living in areas where Lyme disease is prevalent should regularly check them for ticks or signs of a tick bite, such as a rash, redness, or inflammation.
Children with Lyme disease may also have swollen lymph nodes, achy muscles and joints, and feel very weak.
Anyone who suspects their child has Lyme disease should contact their doctor.
Rare causes of neck pain in children include:
Most cases of neck pain in children are temporary. If the neck pain persists for more than a few days, it is best to speak to a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Any child who is experiencing severe symptoms along with their neck pain should see a doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms include:
- numbness or tingling
People should seek emergency care if the pain is due to a major injury, such as a car crash, or if the child is unable to move or stand up.
Doctors will carry out a physical examination to help diagnose the cause of a child’s neck pain.
The doctor will ask if the pain started after physical activity or if the child remembers any trigger for their pain.
They may ask about the child’s habits, such as how often they use electronic devices throughout the day. Doctors may also use imaging tests, such as X-rays, to check for injuries.
If they suspect an infection, doctors may examine the neck for swollen lymph nodes. They may prescribe antibiotics if they believe a bacterial infection is the cause.
Most of the time, neck pain in children goes away over time. Some causes of neck pain can be serious, however, so caregivers should listen to the child’s complaints and look out for additional symptoms.
Lifestyle changes may help correct weak muscles and habits that could be leading to neck pain. Simple home remedies, such as using heat or cold packs, can relieve mild neck pain.
Anyone who is uncertain about their child’s symptoms should speak to a doctor.