The neck contains arteries, nerves, and other structures that are vital for survival. A feeling of tightness in the front of the neck may have a relatively benign cause, or it may indicate an issue with one or more of these structures.
This article discusses the anatomy of the neck, as well as the various causes of tightness in the front of the neck. It also outlines ways to prevent tightness in the neck and provides advice on when to consult a doctor.
The neck is the part of the body that connects the head to the torso. The neck houses a number of important structures, including:
- the trachea, or windpipe, which allows a person to breathe
- the vocal cords, which allow a person to speak
- the esophagus, or food pipe, which connects the mouth and stomach
- the thyroid gland, which helps regulate the body’s metabolism
- the upper, or cervical, spine, which connects the brain and spine and supports the head
Below, we list five potential causes of tightness in the front of the neck, along with their associated treatments.
Allergies are common, affecting more than 50 million people in the United States each year. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, many people do not realize they have an allergy until they experience a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
One potential symptom of anaphylaxis is a feeling of tightness in the throat. Other possible symptoms include:
- difficulty speaking or swallowing
- shortness of breath or wheezing
- hoarse voice
- hives, swelling, or rash
- nausea or vomiting
Some of the common allergy triggers are:
- foods, such as:
- insect stings, including:
- bee stings
- wasp stings
- hornet stings
- medications, such as antibiotics
Anyone who experiences anaphylaxis should seek emergency medical attention. Without prompt treatment, the condition can be life threatening.
Long-term allergy treatment depends partly on the severity of the allergy and the likelihood of the person coming into contact with the allergen in the future.
In some cases, a doctor may refer the person to an allergist, who will carry out diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the allergic reaction.
Possible treatment options may include:
- taking antihistamines to help prevent or lessen allergy flare-ups
- carrying injectable epinephrine and self-injecting after coming into contact with a known allergen
- a foreign body in the throat
- spasms in the throat
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn
- sinus infections
- postnasal drip
Besides a sensation of a lump in the throat, other possible symptoms of GP include:
- a tight or choking feeling in the throat
- itching in the throat
- feeling a need to clear the throat often
- a cough that may or may not produce phlegm
- hoarse voice
The treatment for GP will depend partly on whether there is an identificable cause. For example, a person who has regular heartburn may receive medication to control their heartburn.
If a doctor is unable to identify the cause of GP, they may simply recommend avoiding possible triggers. Examples include:
In some cases, a person may receive a referral for speech and language therapies. According to a 2015 review, such therapies may help alleviate some symptoms of GP.
A goiter is the medical term for a swelling of the thyroid gland. This butterfly-shaped gland sits at the front of the neck and produces hormones that help regulate metabolism.
A goiter does not always cause symptoms. However, possible symptoms include:
- a tight feeling in the neck
- difficulty swallowing and breathing
The following are some of the potential causes of a goiter:
- iodine deficiency
- autoimmune thyroid disorders, such as Hashimoto’s disease or Graves’ disease
- an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism
- a family history of goiters
Some goiters can disappear by themselves. If a person’s symptoms are not severe, their doctor may recommend a period of monitoring, or watchful waiting.
A doctor may recommend surgery for a goiter that causes severe symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing or breathing. In cases where surgery is not a suitable option, a doctor may offer radioiodine therapy to shrink or destroy the thyroid cells to reduce the level of hormones the thyroid produces.
Heartburn refers to a burning sensation in the chest or throat. It is a result of stomach acid leaking out of the stomach and back up into the esophagus.
Other symptoms of heartburn include:
- a sour taste in the back of the mouth
- throat clearing and hoarseness
- a sensation of a lump in the throat
- throat spasms
- difficulty breathing
- nausea and vomiting
GERD is the medical term for frequent heartburn. It is a common condition affecting millions of people worldwide. Risk factors for GERD include:
- older age
- having a sedentary job
- anxiety and depression
- eating fatty, greasy, or acidic foods
- eating meals close to bedtime
Some methods for treating heartburn at home include:
- avoiding foods that are fatty, greasy, or acidic
- eating smaller meals
- avoiding nighttime meals or snacks
- elevating the head of the bed
- quitting smoking
- reducing alcohol intake
If home treatments are not effective, a person should talk with their doctor. The doctor may recommend medications to neutralize stomach acid or slow its production. Examples include:
In some cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to control GERD. However, around 50% of people who undergo such surgery will require repeat surgery in the future.
Tonsillitis is the medical term for infection and inflammation of the tonsils. The most common causes of tonsillitis are the common cold virus and a type of bacterial infection called a streptococcus infection.
Symptoms of tonsillitis include:
It is not always possible to prevent sensations of tightness in the throat, especially if a person cannot identify the cause.
If the tightness is the result of an allergic reaction, people should try to avoid any known allergy triggers. If the symptom is due to a goiter or heartburn, people may find that certain lifestyle modifications help alleviate their symptoms.
In some cases, tightness in the throat can be the result of an infection. People can help prevent infections by following proper hygiene practices, such as washing the hands regularly, including in the following situations:
- before, during, and after preparing food
- before and after eating
- after touching garbage
- after using the toilet or changing a diaper
- after blowing the nose, coughing, or sneezing
- before and after tending to a person who is vomiting or has diarrhea
- before and after treating any wounds
- after touching an animal, animal waste, or animal food
If soap and water is not available, a person should use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
There are many potential causes of tightness in the front of the neck. That is why it is important to consult a doctor for a diagnosis.
A doctor will likely take a full medical history and conduct a physical exam. They may palpate the neck to check for signs of tenderness or numbness. They may also ask the person to move their head up and down and side to side to check the range of motion in the neck.
If necessary, the doctor will order further tests to determine the cause of the tightness. Examples of such tests include:
- X-rays: These imaging tests can help identify issues with the bones and joints within the neck.
- CT scan or MRI scan: These detailed imaging tests can help reveal issues with bones and softer structures within the neck.
- Electromyography: This test involves using needles to stimulate different muscles, and measuring their electrical response. Doctors may use this test to assess the function of nerves in the neck.
- Blood tests: Certain tests may be necessary to assess thyroid function or to identify other inflammatory or infectious causes of tightness in the neck.
The doctor will use the results of any tests to guide possible treatment options.
People should contact a doctor if they experience severe, persistent, or recurrent sensations of tightness in the neck.
Sudden and severe tightness in the neck can be a sign of anaphylaxis. Anyone who experiences symptoms of anaphylaxis should phone the emergency services. If a person has received a prescription for an EpiPen, they should self-inject while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
Tightness in the front of the neck can occur as a result of allergies, inflammation, or infection. It could also occur in response to a digestive upset, such as heartburn or GERD.
Some causes of tightness in the neck may go away without the need for medical treatment. However, people should consult a doctor if the symptom is severe or persistent or worsens over time.
In some cases, a doctor may carry out tests to determine the cause of tightness in the neck. These may include blood tests, medical imaging tests, or tests to assess nerve function. The doctor will use the results of any tests to guide a person’s treatment.