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Stiff Neck - Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies

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Neck stiffness or stiff neck is a common condition affecting people in day-to-day life. Read this article to know more about this condition.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Pradeep Arun Kumar. L

Published At September 20, 2022
Reviewed AtApril 13, 2024

Introduction

A stiff neck usually causes soreness and difficulty moving the neck. The pain is especially evident when turning the head to the side. It may also be accompanied by headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, or arm pain. The individual may need to turn the entire body instead of the neck to look to their side or over their shoulder. In most cases, the pain and stiffness subside within a week. However, the initial management and care for the stiff neck symptoms can affect pain levels, recovery time, and the possibility of its recurrence.

What Are the Common Causes of Stiff Neck?

A stiff neck is usually caused by a muscle strain or soft tissue sprain, especially in the levator scapulae muscle. It is highly susceptible to injury. The muscle connects the cervical spine with the shoulder and is located on the back of the neck. It is controlled by the third and fourth cervical nerves (C3, C4).

The common causes of muscle strain are as follows;

  • Awkward sleeping posture.

  • A sudden force that causes the head to be pushed to the side, such as falling.

  • An activity that needs the head to be constantly moved from side to side, like swimming.

  • Poor posture while viewing a computer screen or looking downward at a mobile phone for prolonged periods.

  • Excessive stress or anxiety leads to tension in the neck.

  • Abnormal position of the neck for an extended period, such as phone bracing.

The reason behind a stiff neck may be evident if symptoms start right away, such as after falling during a sporting event. However, if a stiff neck seems to develop out of nowhere, it could be challenging to determine the cause behind it.

What Are the Uncommon Causes Behind a Stiff Neck?

Neck stiffness may also be a reaction to an underlying disorder of the cervical spine, which helps support and move the neck and protect the spinal cord. Cervical spine disorders lead to spasms of the neck muscle or painful tightening of the neck, as seen in the following cases;

  • Cervical Disc Herniation: The protective outer portion of a disc in the cervical spine breaks down, and the inner part leaks out. This results in nerve compression and inflammation in the adjacent tissue.

  • Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease: It occurs as a result of increasing pressure on nearby joints, nerves, soft tissues, ligaments, and muscles as a result of reduced hydration leading to a painful and stiff neck.

  • Cervical Osteoarthritis: When the arthritic breakdown of the cervical facet joints between vertebral bones often occurs, alongside spinal stenosis and anatomical changes like bone spurs, it results in a stiff neck.

How Does a Stiff Neck Feel?

A stiff neck varies in intensity. It may range from an annoying discomfort to excruciating pain. When attempting to turn the stiff neck to a particular side results in such intense pain that the motion must be ceased. The amount of restriction in neck motion can affect an individual's levels of activity. For instance, if the head cannot be significantly turned in one direction without extreme pain, a menial task such as driving will likely need to be avoided until symptoms improve.

What Can Be Done in Case of a Stiff Neck?

Often, taking a day or two of rest or reducing stress is all that is necessary. It allows the soft tissues in the neck to heal. In cases of significant pain, an individual may want to use over-the-counter pain medication or apply ice and heat therapy to reduce the symptoms.

A cervical collar that can immobilize a stiff neck is ill-advised and should be avoided. Instead, an individual with a stiff neck should try to stick to normal activity levels after the first couple of days.

When Should Medical Advice Be Sought?

If the symptoms do not indicate any improvement after a week, a doctor must be consulted. However, regardless of the duration, a stiff neck accompanied by any other symptoms, such as a fever, headache, nausea or vomiting, or unexplained sleepiness, should be seen by a medical professional immediately.

What Are the Stiff Neck Remedies That Can Be Tried at Home?

A few simple remedies may be tried to relieve symptoms of a stiff neck;

  1. Ice application must be made for the first 48 to 72 hours.

  2. This needs to be followed by heat application.

  3. Take over-the-counter analgesics such as Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen.

  4. Maintaining a bearable but regular movement and pursuing daily activities as much as feasible.

  5. However, avoid jerking or painful activities, which help calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.

  6. Gentle massage.

  7. Having a proper mattress or pillow is essential to avoid awkward sleeping postures. Doctors recommend purchasing memory foam pillows.

  8. Sleeping on a firm mattress without using a pillow.

  9. Use special neck pillows to avoid compression in an awkward sleeping position.

  10. Use a soft neck collar, do not use it for prolonged periods.

Can Stretches Help Relieve a Stiff Neck?

The key to relieving a stiff neck is proper stretching and manipulation. A slow range-of-motion neck exercise, up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear, can help to stretch the neck muscles and relieve the pain significantly. Certain yoga poses also help ease stiffness and pain.

Some of the specific stretches and exercises can be performed at the work desk, at home, or in a car that may help avoid a stiff neck or relieve the symptoms should they ever occur;

  • Rolling the shoulders backward and down ten times.

  • Squeezing the shoulder blades together ten times.

  • Pushing the head back into the car's headrest or armrests and holding for 30 seconds.

  • Bring the ear closer to the shoulder ten times on each side.

Conclusion

A stiff neck usually causes soreness and difficulty moving the neck. The pain is especially evident when turning the head to the side. Often, taking a day or two of rest or reducing stress is all that is necessary. It allows the soft tissues in the neck to heal. In cases of significant pain, an individual may want to use over-the-counter pain medication or apply ice and heat therapy to reduce the symptoms. If the symptoms do not indicate any improvement after a week, a doctor must be consulted.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

Is a Stiff Neck a Serious Problem?

A stiff neck now and then is a common problem. However, sometimes more serious problems can cause a stiff neck, like injury, cervical spine disorders, arthritis, muscle tension or strain, or bacterial meningitis that require prompt treatment.

2.

How to Relieve a Stiff Neck?

Simple self-care tips help relieve a stiff neck like:
 - Massaging and stretching. 
 - Maintaining proper posture.
 - Ice massaging. 
 - Doing simple neck exercises.
 - Limiting activities that strain the neck.

3.

How Long Does a Stiff Neck Last?

The difficulties of a stiff neck usually go away in a week. There is an improvement with the start of gentle neck stretching exercises. The extent of pain or recovery depends on the care taken for the stiff neck.

4.

Can a Virus Cause a Stiff Neck?

Yes, a virus can cause a stiff neck. Meningitis is a serious condition that causes inflammation of the meninges and brain or spinal cord coverings. Bacteria, viruses, or fungi can cause meningitis. A stiff neck can be considered a symptom of meningitis in a few cases.

5.

Can Dehydration Cause a Stiff Neck?

Dehydration is a common cause of a stiff neck as it tightens the ligaments, tendons, and muscles. It also tightens up the cervical spine disks, reducing the cushioning effect and causing neck stiffness and pain.

6.

What Does a Pinched Nerve in the Neck Feel Like?

A pinched nerve in a neck will have symptoms like pain that radiate from the neck to the hands and fingers, burning or prickling sensation, numbness, weakness, and loss of sensation.

7.

Is It Fine to Massage a Stiff Neck?

Yes, massaging is a good way to relieve a stiff neck. A deep tissue massage involves applying deep strokes that target connective tissues and muscles beneath the skin. The massaging strokes help provide instant relief by releasing tension between the muscles.

8.

Can Consuming Water Help Relieve Neck Stiffness?

Drinking plenty of water and fluids is recommended to help release the neck's stiffness, as dehydration causes tightening of the muscles in the body and can also reduce the cushioning effects in the joints of the spine.

9.

Is a Hot Water Shower Good for a Stiff Neck?

Hot temperatures tend to ease joint stiffness and relax a stiff neck. The temperature of the water should be around 40 degrees Celsius. However, very high temperatures must be avoided as it causes a feeling of drowsiness or fever.

10.

Can We Apply Ice or Heat to a Stiff Neck?

Both cold and hot therapies can be chosen to treat a stiff neck. It has to be preferred based on the severity and duration of the pain. A warm compress promotes the blood flow to the affected area and reduces joint stiffness, whereas an ice pack decreases blood flow to the area and reduces inflammation.

11.

Can Advil Be Used to Treat a Stiff Neck?

NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like Ibuprofen are the first line of treatment for treating neck stiffness and pain. They work by reducing the inflammation in the affected part.

12.

Can a Muscle Relaxant Help in Relieving a Stiff Neck?

Muscle relaxants can help relieve the pain and inflammation caused by a stiff neck. They also help in treating back pains. In addition, muscle relaxants, when used in conjunction with other natural remedies, help heal faster.

13.

Can Cervical Disk Herniation Be Cured?

A cervical disk herniation is when the disk's inner core herniates between the disks. It can cause neck and back pain based on the location of the herniation. Non-surgical management is the first line of treatment; however, surgical treatment is recommended in cases of severe pain and disability.

14.

What Happens if a Herniated Cervical Disk Is Left Untreated?

Acute pain related to a herniated disk can progress into chronic pain when left untreated. The herniated disk can rub against nerves in the neck, irritating the nerve and causing sudden sharp shooting pain.
Dr. Pradeep Arun Kumar. L
Dr. Pradeep Arun Kumar. L

Orthopedician and Traumatology

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