Below are “red flag” symptoms that could indicate a potentially serious underlying medical condition is causing the stiff neck:
Fever, which likely signals an infection is being fought
Headache, especially if it seems different from previous headaches in terms of duration, intensity, or accompanying symptoms
Nausea or vomiting
Fatigue or unexplained drowsiness
Change in mental state, which could include confusion or mood swings
Coordination issues, such as dizziness or problems walking or writing
Weight loss that is not part of a diet change
See Understanding Neck Pain and Dizziness
These symptoms should motivate the individual to seek immediate medical attention, but they do not necessarily mean a serious condition or medical emergency is present.
See When Neck Cracking Needs Medical Attention
In This Article:
Stiff Neck Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
Treatment for a Stiff Neck
When Is a Stiff Neck Serious?
Stiff Neck Symptoms and Causes Animation
Most Common Serious Condition with Stiff Neck
Meningitis—which in its most dangerous form is a bacterial infection that causes the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord to be inflamed—is the most common serious condition associated with a stiff neck.
See Spinal Cord Anatomy in the Neck
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a fever, headache, and stiff neck (inability to flex the neck forward, also called nuchal rigidity) are typically early symptoms of bacterial meningitis.FOOT|1] When any two of these symptoms are present together, they should be immediately checked out by a doctor.
See When Neck Stiffness May Mean Meningitis
Meningitis symptoms usually develop within a few days of exposure, and the individual’s condition could worsen gradually or rapidly. Early treatment for meningitis is critical for having a good outcome. Delayed treatment could result in poor outcomes, such as hearing loss, brain damage, or even death.
It should be noted that a stiff neck is not always present with meningitis, and other symptoms could include nausea, heightened sensitivity to light or loud noises, or confusion, among others.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection that causes the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed.
Others Serious Conditions with Stiff Neck
Other conditions that would rarely cause stiff neck but require immediate medical attention include:
Infection. While meningitis is the most common infection that could cause a stiff neck, numerous other infections could also result in a painful stiff neck.
See Osteomyelitis, a Spinal Infection
Tumor. A brain tumor, especially if it is located in the cerebellum, can cause a stiff neck. A tumor in the cervical spine, such as from cancer, could also cause the neck to become sore and/or stiff.
See Types of Spinal Tumors
Cervical dystonia. This neurological disorder, also known as a form of torticollis, can cause neck muscles to spasm uncontrollably. The head could be turned or stuck in various positions outside of normal alignment.
Watch Neck Spasms Animation
This is not a complete list, as many conditions could cause the neck tissues to swell or spasm, resulting in painful, restricted movement.