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Neck Pain

What is neck pain?

Neck pain can be caused by many different illnesses or conditions. It may be caused by a muscle strain. A less common cause of neck pain is swollen glands​ reacting to a viral or other infection. Monitor your child’s pain closely. Persistent or worsening neck pain can be a sign of a more serious problem.

Signs and symptoms

  • pain in the back of the neck
  • pain around the shoulder blades
  • limited movement of the neck
  • holding the head stiffly
  • tilting the head slightly to one side
  • swollen glands that are tender to the touch

If your child has a stiff neck, they may find it difficult to touch their chest with their chin. A stiff neck and a fever may be early signs of meningitis​.


Neck pain is most often caused by a muscle strain. Your child may have strained her neck by sleeping awkwardly or turning her head quickly. She may have been sitting in front of the computer for long periods of time, playing sports, or doing other activities.

If your child injured her neck in a car accident, trampoline fall, high-impact activity or other serious accident, call 911 right away.

Treatment for neck pain caused by muscle strain

Pain relief

Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen as directed by your child’s doctor until they go 24 hours without any pain.


Apply a hot water bottle or heating pad to your child’s neck for 20 minutes. This will help relieve muscle spasm. Repeat this up to six times daily if needed.

Sleeping position

Instead of using a pillow, have your child sleep with a “soft collar” or a rolled towel around their neck. This will stop their head from moving too much when they are sleeping. A “bean-bag” or buck-wheat filled pillow may also help.


Your child should avoid any neck exercises or physical activity until they are feeling better. Impact or high-risk sports should be avoided until they can move their neck without pain.


Encourage your child to stretch the muscles in their neck before any physical activity. Helpful exercises include:

  • touching the chin to each shoulder
  • touching the ear to each shoulder
  • slowly moving the head forward and backward

Do not apply any resistance to the head during these exercises.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your child’s doctor if:

  • the pain is unexplained and lasts three or four days
  • the pain disappears for short periods of time but keeps coming back
  • your child finds it hard to carry out daily activities

Go to the nearest Emergency Department or call 911 if:

  • the pain is severe and lasts more than two hours after taking pain medication
  • numbness occurs in the arms or back
  • your child has a stiff neck and a fever over 37.8°C (100.0°F)
  • your child is drooling excessively or has difficulty swallowing
  • your child is acting very sick

Key points

  • Neck pain is usually caused by a muscle strain.
  • Symptoms can include pain in the back of the neck and limited movement of the neck.
  • Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen as directed on the bottle to treat pain.
  • If your child has a stiff neck and a fever over 37.8°C (100.0°F), go to the nearest Emergency Department. These may be early signs of meningitis.

Elizabeth Berger, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE