Sinus Infection and Neck Pain: Is There a Correlation?

    Updated 27 August 2021 |
    Published 03 February 2020
    Fact Checked
    Reviewed by Olga Adereyko, MD, Primary Care Physician, General Practitioner, Medical Consultant
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    People with allergies or chronic colds understand that sinus infections can be a real pain in the neck. Most cases of acute sinusitis get better on their own. Your doctor may recommend treatments to help relieve sinusitis symptoms, but acute sinusitis can cause potentially dangerous complications. Read on if you’re wondering if sinus infections can cause neck pain.

    What is a sinus infection?

    The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the skull. They are located in the bony structures of the cheeks, behind the forehead and eyebrows, on either side of the bridge of the nose, and directly in front of the brain, behind the nose. When these cavities are irritated or swollen, they can be painful, with many symptoms.

    Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinus cavities. It’s common for people with seasonal allergies and asthma to experience sinusitis on a regular basis, or one can come on after a cold or the flu. People with weakened immune systems are also more susceptible to sinus infections.

    Normal sinuses have a thin layer of mucus that traps pollen, dust, germs, bacteria, and other particles from the air you breathe, reducing the amount of debris that gets into your lungs. Tiny, hair-like cilia sweep this mucus mixture from the sinuses into your throat, where you naturally swallow it on a regular basis. Sinus infections keep the cilia from being able to clear the dust-filled mucus, stopping it from reaching the back of your throat. Sometimes, allergies or nasal/respiratory infections can cause swelling that inhibits the function of the cilia hairs. This keeps microorganisms in the sinuses, where infections can develop.

    Acute sinusitis is often caused by the common cold, which is a viral infection. Sinusitis can also be caused by bacterial or fungal infections. For people with chronic allergies or who have recently had a cold, their sinuses are rawer and more inflamed, which makes them more vulnerable to infection. While sinus infections can go away on their own, they can also last for up to eight weeks. Left untreated, a sinus infection can sometimes result in neck pain or other complications. 

    More severe sinus infections can be deadly if the infection spreads to the brain.

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    Diagnosing a sinus infection

    To diagnose a sinus infection, your doctor will feel for tenderness in your nose and face. They will also look inside your nose and can usually make a diagnosis based on a physical exam. To visually inspect your sinuses, the doctor may use a nasal endoscopy, where they insert a thin, flexible tube into your nostril.

    For more severe cases, your doctor may recommend imaging studies like a CT scan. These are less common and typically only used when the doctor suspects complications or abnormalities. If you have chronic sinus infections, your doctor may want to examine your sinuses for deformities or damage.

    To diagnose a sinus infection, your doctor will feel for tenderness in your nose and face. They will also look inside your nose and can usually make a diagnosis based on a physical exam.

    If the treatment for your sinus infection doesn’t seem to be working or if the infection comes back, the doctor may take tissue samples from your nose and sinus cavities. While lab tests aren’t generally necessary for an initial diagnosis, these cultures may help a doctor check for indications of a more severe bacterial infection.

    If your persistent sinus infections aren’t caused by damage or deformity to the sinuses themselves, you may be referred to an allergist for allergy testing to help pinpoint the allergens responsible and help you avoid them or take medications to control the reactions.

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    Can sinus infections cause neck pain and stiffness?

    A sinus infection may not affect all the sinus chambers. Some sinus infections create pain around the eye sockets, while infections in other chambers can cause sinus neck pain. Sinus pain from a sinus infection is typically worse in the morning, making it difficult for people to begin their day.

    Most neck pain from a sinus infection is caused by inflammation or an infection of the sinus cavities behind the eyes. It’s important to monitor these illnesses, as an infection in this particular area is more likely to spread to the brain. 

    What does sinus-infection-related neck pain feel like?

    Neck pain from a sinus infection may feel similar to pain from stiff or sore muscles but different from arthritis pain. The neck pain from a sinus infection isn’t isolated to the neck. In fact, you’ll probably feel sore and tender on the top of your head, around your eyes, nose, and cheeks, and alongside your neck.

    Sinus infection and neck tenderness?

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    Other symptoms of a sinus infection

    The symptoms of a sinus infection often resemble those of a bad cold. These can include a runny nose, headache, facial pain, and nasal congestion. In addition to typical cold symptoms, a sinus infection may cause yellow- or green-tinged mucus. You may also experience post-nasal drip and a sore throat, along with puffiness and soreness around the face and sinuses. You may also have a dry, unproductive cough and a fever. Fatigue and bad breath are also symptoms of sinus infections.

    Different sinuses also present different types of pain if infected. For example, infection of the sinuses around your eyes may result in red, puffy eyes that look like an allergic flare-up, while infection of the sinuses in your cheeks may cause excessive bad breath and pain in your teeth.

    Ways to deal with sinus-infection-related neck pain

    Treating neck pain from a sinus infection can include treating the infection itself, either with rest and plenty of water or with antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Severe, protracted sinus infections can cause neck pain that lasts weeks. Treating the neck pain itself can include over-the-counter pain relief medications. For more advanced cases, your doctor may prescribe nasal corticosteroids.

    Other treatments for sinus infections include antihistamines or special nasal sprays. However, if stiffness in your neck persists, especially if you have a high fever (over 102 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s important to seek immediate medical attention, as this can be an indication that the infection may be spreading.

    If your neck pain and stiffness are associated with a sinus infection, instead of muscle problems like a strain, some treatments like prescription muscle relaxers or massage may not help the pain and stiffness.

    In some cases, neck pain associated with inflammation of the sphenoid sinuses (the sinuses closest to the brain) may be treated with antibiotics. For worse conditions, you may need surgery to drain the sinuses. 

    The takeaway

    While most sinus infections can run their course with help from over-the-counter treatments and plenty of water, others may require a round of antibiotics. It’s a good idea to visit your doctor either way. If you have neck pain and a fever along with cold-like symptoms or a sinus infection, it’s important to seek medical attention before the infection becomes severe or life-threatening.

    History of updates

    Current version (27 August 2021)

    Reviewed by Olga Adereyko, MD, Primary Care Physician, General Practitioner, Medical Consultant

    Published (03 February 2020)

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