Your neck feels tight and tense, and it’s uncomfortable, maybe even impossible, to move it from side to side or up and down. And a stiff neck often seems to linger on and on.
Most often, a stiff neck is caused by strain on the soft tissues of your neck, but it can be a symptom of many problems and shouldn’t be ignored.
Causes of Stiff Neck
A stiff neck may be the result of:
Injury. If you had an accident that caused your head to jerk around violently, you may have injured the muscles and perhaps the ligaments in your neck, which can lead to stiffness. Neck injuries may result from mishaps as wide-ranging as automobile accidents, a collision or hit sustained while playing contact sports, and falls.
Osteoarthritis. This is a condition that results from wear and tear of your joints and often occurs with age. It can lead to stiffness and limited movement in various joints, including your neck.
Rheumatoid arthritis. This autoimmune disorder affects your joints, and it can damage those in your neck. This damage can result in severe neck pain and stiffness, usually in the upper part of your neck.
Pinched nerve. A pinched nerve may be due to arthritis, the narrowing of your spinal canal, or a herniated disk. If you have a pinched nerve, you may experience neck stiffness that sometimes radiates into your arms and maybe your legs.
Emotional stress. When you’re under stress, your muscles can become tense. A stiff neck is often an early signal that you are feeling stressed.
Fibromyalgia. This disorder is associated with painful, achy muscles and joints. Muscles may contract, resulting in a stiff neck.
Muscle spasm. A muscle spasm occurs when your nerves send messages to your muscles that cause them to contract. A muscle spasm in your neck can result in a stiff neck.
Meningitis. Meningitis is a serious, potentially life-threatening infection of the fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. Along with fever and a headache, a stiff neck is a common symptom of meningitis.
Other infections. In addition to fever, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, a stiff neck can be a sign of a simple viral infection, such as the flu
Stiff Neck: Treatments That Help
Since neck stiffness can be a symptom of a serious condition, it is a good idea to seek medical care, especially if your stiff neck is severe, persistent, and accompanied by other symptoms described above.
To determine the cause of your stiff neck, your doctor will perform a physical exam and talk with you about your symptoms. In some cases, an X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or another imaging study will be conducted so your doctor can view the bones and tissues inside your neck.
Your treatment will depend on the cause of your stiff neck. In the case of strained muscles or ligaments, initial treatment may include:
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like ibuprofen (Advil) to help relieve pain
A cervical collar to keep your neck still so your muscles can rest
Limitation of activities that could strain your neck, like heavy lifting
Referral to a physical therapist
Stiff Neck: At-Home Therapies
Along with what your primary doctor prescribes, you may also want to try:
Exercises. Practice simple stretches like moving your head up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear. Do them slowly.
Massage. Have your spouse or partner massage your neck, but do it gently.
Pillow. Sleep on a firm mattress with a specially designed neck pillow. Or try skipping a pillow entirely if your doctor gives you the go-ahead.
Ice and heat therapies. Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours after stiff neck symptoms begin to relieve inflammation, then switch to soothing heat with a heat wrap or heating pad or a shower treatment.
If your stiff neck gets worse or does not begin to improve within a week or two, let your doctor know. Most cases do resolve in four to six weeks, but others take longer to get better. Your doctor will be able to tell you when you may need more specialized care to relieve your symptoms.