How does the neck work?

To get a better idea of why your neck hurts, take a look at how it works. The spine is made up of 33 bones, called vertebrae or vertebral bodies. The vertebrae are positioned one on top of another from the base of the skull to the pelvis.

A shock absorbing structure called an intervertebral disc sits between each vertebrae, and each spinal segment (defined as two vertebrae separated by one intervertebral disc) is connected by two small articulating surfaces called facet joints.

Together, the vertebrae and intervertebral discs form the spinal column. The spinal column supports the weight of the head and upper body, serves as an attachment point for muscles and ligaments that allow you to perform every day activities, and most importantly, protects the spinal cord.

The top seven vertebrae make up the neck (or cervical) region of the spine. When the bones or discs in the neck become diseased or injured, it can affect your ability to move and function normally.

Your neck carries a lot of weight.

Neck pain can be defined as acute or chronic. Acute pain typically occurs suddenly and can be severe, but it usually only lasts for a short period of time. In contrast, chronic pain is usually persistent and may not improve on its own over time.

Neck pain can also be classified as either mechanical or neurological:​

1. Mechanical pain refers to pain that is generated as a result of inflammation of or a breakdown in the mechanical components of the spine that create movement, i.e. intervertebral discs, facet joints, ligaments and/or muscles.

2. Neurological pain refers to pain, numbness or weakness that is generated by a narrowing of either the spinal canal or the passageways called neural foramen (for-AY-men) through which the spinal nerves exit the spinal canal. This narrowing can cause irritation of the spinal cord or spinal nerves, which in turn can cause pain, numbness or weakness in the neck, shoulders or arms.1

If any of the following symptoms persist, it’s important that you consult with your doctor:

Neck pain

Pain, numbness, or tingling in the arms our shoulders

Weakness in the arms or legs

What are some possible reasons for your pain?

Degenerative disc disease is the progressive deterioration of the intervertebral discs throughout the spine that can occur as we age.

Cervical stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces through which the spinal cord and/or nerves pass.

A herniated disc occurs when a small portion of an intervertebral disc shifts to an abnormal location, putting pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerves.

Cervical spondylosis, or arthritis of the neck, is the medical term for age-related, wear-and-tear changes to the joints of the neck that can occur over a lifetime.

Find out why your neck hurts.

What will a doctor do?

The first time your doctor meets you, he/she will try to assess what’s going on. You’ll answer a few questions about your symptoms. He/she will ask you to replicate the movements that may be causing you pain or discomfort. The doctor may understand what’s going on right away because you show classic symptoms of a particular problem. Or, the doctor may ask you to have an additional diagnostic test, like an X-ray or an MRI.

It’s important to keep in mind that symptom relief doesn't always mean surgery. Your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments to help alleviate your symptoms. Learn more about your options here.

  1. V.V. Patel et al. (eds.), Spine Surgery Basics, pp 185-187. © Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014.
Important information


Some of the images on this website depict Stryker’s products. Please speak to your doctor if you have questions about these products or anything else in this website.

The information presented is for educational purposes only. Stryker is not dispensing medical advice. Please speak to your doctor to decide if spinal surgery is right for you. Only your doctor can make the medical judgment regarding which products and treatments are right for your own individual condition.

As with any surgery, spinal surgery carries certain risks. Your surgeon will explain all the possible complications of the surgery, as well as side effects. Each spinal surgery patient will experience a different post-operative activity level, depending on his/her own individual clinical factors. Your doctor will help counsel about how to best maintain your activities in order to recover properly from your surgery. Such activities include not engaging in high-impact activities that could de-stabilize any instrumentation that may have been implanted.

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Ask your doctor if spine surgery is right for you.


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