When Do You Need Imaging for Severe Neck Pain?

June 28, 2022 – 3 min read

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When Do You Need Imaging for Severe Neck Pain?

For most people, neck pain can last for a few hours or days, and can be treated at home. However, when you have severe neck pain that goes on for months or years, you may need more than a home remedy.

If you are experiencing severe neck pain, your provider may want to order an imaging scan to see what’s going on inside your cervical spine. The imaging scans most often ordered for severe neck pain include a CT scan, an MRI, and an X-ray. Talk with your healthcare provider to see which scan is right for you.

Neck pain, an overview

Neck pain is defined as any discomfort in the structures of the cervical spine and can sometimes radiate down your arms or hands. There are many different causes of neck pain, such as a stiff neck, pinched nerve, muscle strains, poor posture, ruptured disk, or tension in the neck muscles.

Acute neck pain describes pain that comes on suddenly and very often goes away within a few days or weeks. You might experience acute neck pain from an injury or sleeping in an unusual position.

Chronic neck pain is pain that lasts longer than three months. Chronic neck pain can be caused by a range of conditions, including but not limited to:

  • Arthritis
  • Bulging disks
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Injuries, typically those resulting in whiplash
  • Pinched or compressed nerves
  • Spine conditions, such as spinal stenosis
  • Sprains or strains

Depending on the reason behind your neck pain, your healthcare provider may prescribe muscle relaxants or recommend gentle stretching. You can also try over-the-counter pain relievers, applying heat or ice, or getting a massage to help ease your pain.

Neck CT scan

A CT scan of the neck produces cross-sectional pictures of your neck via X-rays that show detailed images of the bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues. Depending on the CT scan your provider orders, you may need contrast materials, which can help highlight the problem areas in your neck.

Because CT scans can show the fine details of bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues in the same image, some providers prefer to order a CT scan rather than an MRI or traditional X-ray.

Neck X-ray

Providers most often order neck X-rays to help diagnose neck fractures or other bone-related conditions. X-rays use radiation to create images. During your imaging, the technologist may ask you to change positions to take X-rays from different angles.

Neck MRI

An MRI uses magnets and radio waves to take images of the neck. An MRI is perfect for images of soft tissues and can help providers diagnose tumors or other soft tissue issues.

Unlike a CT scan or an X-ray, an MRI scan does not use radiation, which may make it better suited for people who are pregnant or have a compromised immune system.

Are you dealing with neck pain? Your doctor may recommend diagnostic imaging to get to the root of the issue. Find an American Health Imaging center near you.