Why You Have a Stiff Neck & Ways to Get Rid of It
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Understand your stiff neck symptoms with Buoy, including 9 causes and common questions concerning your stiff neck.
Stress and tension on the neck and upper body can result in uncomfortable stiffness, aches, and pains that hinder all kinds of daily activity. You should read below to recognize other symptoms associated with neck stiffness to prevent future damage and receive appropriate care.
Common characteristics of a stiff neck
Symptoms of neck pain that result from stress and constant wear and tear include:
- Restriction in movement
- Pain that radiates to the arms, shoulders, or upper back
You may observe that you have a tendency to massage the neck or move the neck around to alleviate neck stiffness symptoms. However, this is only a temporary fix. See a physician to investigate the potential causes of your neck stiffness and available treatment options.
The neck, also known as the cervical spine, has many components, which includes those listed below. See this image for a visual representation. Anything that causes stress, overuse and damage to these components can result in neck stiffness symptoms.
- Vertebrae: The individual bones.
- Intervertebral discs: The discs that separate the bones and act as shock absorbers when the neck moves (intervertebral discs).
- Muscles and ligaments: The muscles and ligaments of the neck that hold the cervical spine together.
- Nerves: These start in the head and travel down the body through the spinal cord.
Positional causes, in terms of posture and how you hold your upper body on a daily basis, can cause stress on the neck. Posture may seem like a small issue but overtime it can cause significant pain and injury.
- Be aware of your posture: Notice and be aware of how you are standing and how your neck is positioned. Try to notice the unintentional stress you may be putting on your upper body as you work at your desk or as you exercise.
- Extra weight: Carrying a heavy backpack or purse consistently on one shoulder can put unnecessary stress on one side of your neck and cause stiffness and pain.
- Sleeping position: When you wake up in the mornings, notice your neck position as you were sleeping.
- Exercise: Take note of your technique and form during exercises that require repetitive lifting, pulling, pushing, twisting, and bending in different directions.
Stiffness in the neck will result after any type of injury to the cervical spine. Whiplash from situations such as motor vehicle accidents can cause significant trauma to the neck, but traumatic causes are varied and are not limited to car accidents.
- Sports injuries: Neck injuries are common in contact sports, such as football and hockey, and in sports that may involve falls, such as skiing, volleyball, or cross-country biking.
- Falls: You may injure your neck during a fall, such as from a ladder or tripping on an icy sidewalk. Sometimes, such falls can disrupt and dislocate the discs in the neck resulting in the disc "jutting out" (herniation) and causing irritation on the nerves, muscles and ligaments of the neck.
Processes that cause swelling and inflammation of the components of the cervical spine can cause compression and pressure that results in neck pain and injury.
- Arthritis: Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness of the bones and joints. Arthritic processes can affect many parts of the cervical spine and cause irritation that often leads to injury.
- Infections: Bacterial and viral infections, especially those that affect the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), can result in referred pain in the neck area that manifests as stiffness that is also associated with symptoms such as headache and fever.
Causes of a stiff neck related to aging may include the following.
- Degeneration: Age-related wear and tear can cause deterioration of any of the components of the cervical spine. The discs are most commonly affected and age-related changes make them less flexible and more susceptible to tearing and rupture. These changes often result in stiffness that is chronic and difficult to alleviate.
- Narrowing: Over time, wear and tear of the actual bones and vertebrae can lead to narrowing of the spaces in the cervical spine (stenosis). This narrowing results in irritation of components that are now too close together, resulting in neck stiffness and pain.
9 conditions with stiff neck symptoms
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Whiplash, or neck strain, occurs when the ligaments tough, fibrous bands that connect bones in the neck have are overstretched or torn. Whiplash is caused by a sudden impact that causes the head to whip back and forth very suddenly, such as during an automobile accident, a fast amusement park ride, or a sport.
2. Retropharyngeal abscess (adult)
Retropharyngeal abscess is a collection of pus in the tissues in the back of the throat. It is a potentially life-threatening medical condition.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: sore throat, loss of appetite, fever, shortness of breath, being severely ill
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Wryneck is a twisted neck in which the head is tipped to one side, while the chin is turned to the other.
Top Symptoms: neck pain on one side, difficulty moving the neck, constant neck pain, pain that causes the neck to bend
Symptoms that always occur with wryneck: pain that causes the neck to bend, neck pain on one side, constant neck pain
Symptoms that never occur with wryneck: neck pain that shoots to the arm, arm weakness, arm numbness
A subarachnoid hemorrhage is characterized by a leakage of blood into the space between the first and second membranes surrounding the brain. The accumulation of blood causes the pressure inside the skull to increase, which can lead to brain damage and death.
5. Tension headache (first onset)
Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. It is pain or discomfort in the head and/or neck. It's often associated with muscle tightness in these areas. This condition can occur as little as once a year (infrequent) but as often as more than 15 days per month (chronic). The cause of tension-type headaches is not clear.
Top Symptoms: new headache, nausea or vomiting, moderate headache, loss of appetite, mild headache
Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset):new headache
Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset):photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
Aseptic meningitis refers to inflammation of the meninges caused by something other than a bacterial infection, most commonly, a viral infection. Meningitis in itself is a broad term that refers to inflammation of the meninges, the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
7. Lyme disease
Lyme disease is a bacterial illness transmitted through the bite of the deer tick (black-legged tick) after it has been attached for at least 36-48 hours. These may be tiny, immature ticks that are difficult to see, often attaching in a place on the body where hair grows.
The disease does not spread through casual contact, either between humans or between humans and pets.
Early symptoms include fever, chills, headache, and body aches. There may be a rash around the tick bite, which sometimes enlarges to form a clear circle around the bite.
Later symptoms are severe with headaches, neck stiffness, further rashes, facial drooping (palsy,) and joint pain and swelling. This is a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Untreated Lyme disease in a pregnant woman can lead to stillbirth, but antibiotics will usually prevent this.
Diagnosis is made through symptoms as well as a blood test.
Treatment consists of oral antibiotics in most cases, though severe cases may require IV antibiotics.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, irritability, muscle aches, loss of appetite
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Meningitis describes inflammation of the meninges, the layers of membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Viruses, fungi, bacteria, and other rare causes can lead to meningitis. Streptococcus, Neisseria, Listeria, and Haemophilus are common bacterial causes of mening...
9. Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis
Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) is calcification or a bony hardening of ligaments in areas where they attach to the spine. Ligaments are supposed to be flexible, so DISH can cause symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and restricted movement.
Top Symptoms: joint pain, upper back pain, stiff neck, stiff back, trouble swallowing
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Treatment and relief
If your neck stiffness symptoms are a result of stress or improper positioning, try these self-care tips and suggestions to gain relief:
- Apply ice then heat: Putting ice on your neck will help reduce pain and relax sore or tight muscles. Limit application of ice or heat to 15 minutes at a time and repeat every couple of hours.
- Stretch and strengthen: As directed by your doctor or physical therapist, do gentle exercises at home to maintain range of motion in your neck and prevent stiffness.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor promptly if you have symptoms of stiffness that are also associated with shooting pain or numbness and tingling in the neck area. Regardless if you have these symptoms or not, persistent neck stiffness should be evaluated and your physician can determine the diagnosis. He or she may recommend:
- Non-inflammatory medications: Your doctor may prescribe this type of medication to combat arthritic processes that are causing neck stiffness symptoms.
- Surgery: If at-home remedies and medication options from your doctor do not provide relief, you and your doctor may look into surgical options.
When it is an emergency
Call 911 immediately if you experience symptoms below. These may be signs of meningitis which requires urgent treatment and follow-up.
- High fever
- Severe neck pain
- Light sensitivity
Here are some frequently asked questions about stiff neck.
Can you get a stiff neck from stress?
Yes, stress can cause elevation of the shoulders and neck. This posture can strain the muscles of the neck, back, and either side of the spine, including the paraspinal muscles and trapezius muscles. The tension placed on these muscles over time can cause a sense of strain or tension on the neck, wherein it is painful to move the neck through a full range of motion or it is difficult because of stiffness.
Why do I suddenly have a stiff neck?
A sudden stiff neck can be caused by many things, including and most commonly an unusual or different sleeping position. Any new physical activity involving the upper body, such as lifting or throwing an object, can also strain a muscle and cause a stiff neck. Sudden neck stiffness is often accompanied by some movement or position that it can be attributed to, but often not. It can be treated with an over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen.
How long does a stiff neck usually last?
A stiff neck may last differing amounts of time depending on the cause. If working out, carrying a bag, a certain sleeping position or physical activity is the cause of a stiff neck, it will likely continue until the activity is stopped. Otherwise, neck stiffness if it is muscular in origin usually won't last much longer than a few days.
Why do I have a stiff neck with my headache?
Sometimes the muscles at the base of the head or back of the skull can be tense. When those muscles become tense, they can cause a tension headache. It is important to note that some infections can cause headache and neck stiffness that is severe. If you have a headache, neck stiffness, fever, confusion, change in vision, or vomiting, you should seek immediate medical evaluation.
Why is my neck stiff on one side?
Usually, one-sided neck stiffness is produced by movement that affects one side of the neck more than the other. Lifting weights, an uneven purse or book bag, luggage, or a sleeping position in which the neck is unsupported on one side can all cause one-sided neck stiffness.
Questions your doctor may ask about stiff neck
- Are you experiencing a headache?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with a specific type of headache?
- Have you noticed any vision changes?
- Have you been experiencing any muscle weakness that is symmetrical (equal on both sides of your body)?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Dr. Gambrah-Lyles is a resident pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2019). She graduated cum laude and received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis (2013). Her research explores the intersections between neurology, public health, and infectious disease. She has investigated nutrition and cerebral palsy in Botswana, and completed a year-long project in Brazil, researching growth and developmental outcomes of Zika virus infection in pediatric patients as a Doris Duke International Scholar. Dr. Gambrah-Lyles speaks four languages, loves staying active, and enjoys sharing her love for medicine through teaching and writing.
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