Exams and Tests for Neck Pain

How the Cause of Neck Pain Is Diagnosed

Written by Jason M. Highsmith, MD

Neck pain can be a symptom of an underlying cervical spine condition. You should get an accurate diagnosis of what's causing your pain.  Your doctor will go through several exams and tests to help diagnose your neck pain.
During your visit, your doctor or spine specialist will ask you questions and perform some basic exams. This is to try to identify the cause of your neck pain and develop a treatment plan for you—a way to manage your pain and other symptoms and to help you recover.

Medical History Review

First, the doctor will ask about your current symptoms and remedies you have already tried. He or she will ask some typical questions, such as:

Physical and Neurological Exams

Your spine specialist will also perform physical and neurological exams.

In the physical exam, your doctor will observe your posture, range of motion, and physical condition, noting any movement that causes you pain. Your doctor will feel your spine, note its curvature and alignment, and feel for muscle spasm. He or she will also check your shoulder area.

During the neurological exam, your spine specialist will test your reflexes, muscle strength, other nerve changes, and pain spread (eg, does the pain move down your arm and into your hand?)

Imaging Tests: X-rays, CTs, and MRIs

To diagnose the cause of your neck pain, you may need to have some imaging tests done.

You may have an x-ray, which can show narrowed disc space (spinal stenosis), fractures, bone spurs (osteophytes), or osteoarthritis.

A computerized tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test can show a bulging disc or a herniated disc.

You also may be asked to undergo additional tests.

Diagnosing neck pain can be tricky. Because there are many possible causes of neck pain, there may be overlapping symptoms with other conditions. Be a good patient—and be patient. Your spine specialist is trying to determine if your neck pain is serious and is also working to choose the best treatment for your cervical spine condition.

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