In most cases, neck pain occurs due to a minor injury. But new, worsening, or constant neck pain could be a symptom of cancer, especially if a person has other cancer symptoms, such as a lump.

Neck pain from cancer typically occurs when cancer affects a nearby structure, such as the thyroid, spinal cord, brain, or jaw. A person may have other symptoms, such as swelling in the neck, pain on one side of the neck or body, weakness, unexplained weight loss, or fever.

Any pain that does not resolve on its own with home treatment warrants calling a doctor. Early intervention often improves the outlook of a person with cancer, as it can stop the cancer from spreading.

According to the National Cancer Institute, head and neck cancers account for 4% of all cancers in the United States.

This article will explain whether neck pain can be a sign of cancer, along with other specific symptoms of head and neck cancer. It will also detail the causes and treatment of neck cancer, the outlook, and noncancerous causes of neck pain.

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Neck pain can be a symptom of cancer. However, most neck pain is not cancer, and neck pain is not a common cancer symptom.

A person is more likely to have cancer if they have other cancer symptoms, such as:

  • a lump, bump, or growth in the neck or mouth
  • weight loss
  • appetite loss
  • night sweats or fever
  • unexplained intense fatigue
  • pain or bleeding in the mouth

Read more about the possible causes of neck pain here.

Neck cancer actually includes a large group of cancers that doctors call head and neck cancers. They are separate from lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymph nodes that commonly starts in the neck.

The symptoms vary with the type of cancer a person has. For example, cancer that affects the spinal cord may cause neurological symptoms or unusual sensations, such as neck tingling that radiates elsewhere in the body.

Some symptoms to look for include:

  • a growth, lump, bump, or sore in the mouth
  • unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • trouble swallowing
  • changes in voice
  • a feeling of fullness in the throat
  • chronic headaches
  • ear pain or ringing that does not go away
  • tooth pain
  • swelling and pain around the eyes

Read more about head and neck cancers here.

Many different cancers can occur in the neck and head, including:

  • thyroid cancer
  • throat cancer
  • mouth or oral cancer
  • tongue cancer
  • cancer that has spread from another area of the body to the spine

Cancer occurs when cells grow out of control, usually due to genetic changes in the cells or those regulating them.

Both genetic and environmental factors increase the risk. However, doctors do not fully understand why some people develop cancer and others do not.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), human papillomavirus (HPV) and tobacco smoking can cause genetic changes in the cells. This increases the risk of head and neck cancer.

Males are about twice as likely as females to get head and neck cancers. Certain occupational factors, such as exposure to toxic chemicals, may also elevate the risk.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Mechanical issues, such as injuries or damage to the spine or soft tissues, cause most neck pain. In most cases, the pain is self-limiting. This means it usually goes away on its own, with or without treatment.

Some common causes include:

Less commonly, neck pain may be a sign of a serious underlying condition, such as:

  • an infection
  • damage to the blood vessels
  • a broken bone in the spine
  • heart attack
  • lung disorders

Of head and neck cancers in the United States, roughly 73% occur in people with HPV infection.

Smoking and chewing tobacco were once the leading cause, but declining smoking rates have changed this. Still, smoking or using chewing tobacco are significant risk factors. Exposure to secondhand smoke also elevates the risk.

Some other risk factors include:

  • alcohol consumption
  • the use of paan or betel quid, a common practice in Southeast Asian
  • occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos, and other toxic chemicals
  • exposure to radiation
  • viruses such as Epstein-Barr virus or HPV
  • some genetic disorders and family history

Treatment depends on the type of cancer a person has, their overall health, and how well they can tolerate treatment. Many head and neck cancers are curable, especially in the early stages before the cancer spreads.

Some treatment options include:

  • surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation
  • immunotherapy
  • targeted therapies
  • medication to manage symptoms

Cancer survival rates vary greatly. People who are young, healthy, and able to undergo treatment have a better overall outlook. The survival rate also depends on the type of cancer a person has and how advanced it is.

Overall, 5-year survival rates for some common head and neck cancers include:

Cancers linked to HPV have a better outlook than those linked to alcohol or tobacco use.

No prevention strategy can guarantee that a person will not get cancer. Some lifestyle changes may help. These can include:

  • not smoking or using tobacco
  • getting vaccinated against HPV
  • using condoms and dental dams to practice safer sex
  • avoiding tanning and wearing sunscreen
  • minimizing occupational exposure to toxic chemicals

Neck pain can be scary and painful. However, it is not the most common cancer symptom and usually indicates another issue. Severe, sudden neck pain could warn of a serious condition such as injury to a blood vessel or an infection.

A person with intense pain and other symptoms should go to the emergency room. Otherwise, it is safe to see if the pain resolves independently. If it does not, a person may wish to consult a doctor. People should also talk with a doctor if they have other symptoms of head or neck cancer, such as a lump or unexplained weight loss.