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Learn about your stiff neck, including causes and common questions. Or get a personalized analysis of your stiff neck from our A.I. Symptom Checker. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

Your Stiff Neck May Also be Known as:
Can't move neck
Hard to bend head
Hard to bend neck
Hard to move head
Hard to move neck
Head stiffness
Head tightness
Injured neck
Neck discomfort
Neck injury

Stiff Neck Symptoms

Daily stress and tension on the neck and upper body can result in stiffness and aches and pains that become uncomfortable and affect your daily life.

It is important to be able to recognize symptoms associated with neck stiffness in order to prevent future damage and get appropriate care.

Symptoms of neck pain that result from stress and constant wear and tear include:

You may observe that you have a tendency to massage the neck or move the neck around in order to alleviate the neck stiffness symptoms. However, this is only a temporary fix. It is important to make an appointment with your physician in order to investigate the potential causes of your neck stiffness and available treatment options.

Stiff Neck Causes Overview

The neck, also known as the cervical spine, has many components, which includes:

  • The individual bones (the vertebrae)
  • The discs that separate the bones and act as shock absorbers when the neck moves (intervertebral discs)
  • The muscles and ligaments of the neck that hold the cervical spine together
  • Nerves that start in the head and travel down the body through the spinal cord.

See this image for a visual representation

Anything that causes stress, overuse and damage to these components can result in neck stiffness symptoms.

Positional causes:

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, 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.

Traumatic causes:

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 injury is a common occurrence 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.

Inflammation-related causes:

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.

Age-related causes:

  • 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.

Top 10 Stiff Neck Causes

  1. 1.Whiplash

    Whiplash, a soft tissue injury to the neck, is the result of a sudden jolt to the neck. This injury most frequently occurs after a car is rear-ended.

    You do not need treatment. Your whiplash should improve within a week. In the meantime, you can take an over-the-counter painkiller to manage your pain. If your symptoms do not improve, you should see your primary care physician.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, pain in the back of the neck, stiff neck, arm weakness, shoulder pain from an injury
    Symptoms that always occur with whiplash:
    neck pain from an injury, pain in the back of the neck
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.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.

    You can safely treat this condition on your own. Tension-type headaches are diagnosed purely by your symptoms. Medications, such as over-the-counter pain killers (e.g., ibuprofen or Tylenol) may help. However, it is important not to take them too regularly. Taking them more than two or three times a week can cause more headaches, as the body gets used to the drug, and the headache comes back when you stop taking the medication. If these headaches become more chronic in nature, you should visit your primary care physician, as chronic tension-type headaches can be more effectively treated with prescription medications and additional non-drug therapies.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, moderate headache, mild headache
    Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset):
    new headache
    Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset):
    hidden: both photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  3. 3.Stroke or Tia (Transient Ischemic Attack)

    A stroke is a medical emergency. Strokes happen when blood flow to the brain is stopped.

    You needs to go to the hospital by ambulance or as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the fewer treatment options available and the worse the outcome.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, new headache, arm numbness, being severely ill, leg numbness
    Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack):
    bilateral weakness
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  4. 4.Stroke or Tia (Transient Ischemic Attack)

    A stroke is a medical emergency. Strokes happen when blood flow to the brain is stopped.

    Call 911 immediately. The longer you wait, the fewer treatment options available and the worse the outcome.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, new headache, being severely ill, stiff neck, arm weakness
    Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack):
    bilateral weakness
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  5. 5.Hashimoto's Disease

    The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ inside the neck that is responsible for making thyroid hormones. These hormones control important body functions, such as heart rate and the rate at which the body turns food into energy. Hashimoto's disease is a condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid, and not enough thyroid hormone is produced, leading to symptoms like fatigue and weight gain.

    You should visit your primary care physician. Hashimoto's disease is a complex condition that is usually treated by hormone replacement therapy to bring hormone levels back up to normal.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, constipation, diarrhea
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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  6. 6.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.

    You should visit your primary care physician who will be able to confirm the diagnosis with X-ray, and localize the problem to specific areas in your spine. This disease is managed with pain medication, physiotherapy, and, in rare cases, surgery.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    joint pain, upper back pain, stiff neck, stiff back, trouble swallowing
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Stroke or Tia (Transient Ischemic Attack)

    A stroke is a medical emergency. Strokes happen when blood flow to the brain is stopped.

    You needs to go to the hospital by ambulance or as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the fewer treatment options available and the worse the outcome.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    being severely ill, new headache, stiff neck, dizziness, vision changes
    Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack):
    bilateral weakness
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  8. 8.Aseptic Meningitis

    Aseptic meningitis is a condition in which the layers lining the brain (the meninges) become inflamed and painful but there is no bacterial infection involved. It can be caused by virusses, fungi or medication.

    You should go to the ER as soon as possible in order to take a sample of the fluid bathing the nervous system to characterize the type of infection it is. A non-bacterial meningitis typically has no need for antibiotics.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, nausea, muscle aches, fever, chills
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  9. 9.Intracerebral Hemorrhage

    Intracerebral hemorrhage occurs when a diseased blood vessel within the brain bursts, allowing blood to leak inside the brain. (The name means within the cerebrum or brain).

    Call 911 immediately for an ambulance now. This is a life-threatening medical condition which needs to be treated in an intensive care unit (ICU). Blood pressure medication will be administered, as well as medications to prevent seizures and blood clots. Emergency surgery may be performed to decrease the size of the bleed and prevent pressure from building up in the brain and destroying tissue.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, new headache, severe headache, vomiting, stiff neck
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  10. 10.Bacterial Meningitis

    Meningitis is a bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges). It is a serious infection as it may affect the nervous system.

    You should seek care urgently at anEmergency Room by calling 911. Tests need to be run as soon as possible in order to determine the cause of the infection, and treat as soon as possible to avoid lasting complications. Early diagnosis and treatment is vital for the treatment of meningitis.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, nausea, being severely ill, fever
    Symptoms that always occur with bacterial meningitis:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service

Stiff Neck Treatments 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 in order to gain quick relax.
  • 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.

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.

Depending on your diagnosis, you physician may suggest:

  • 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 option from your doctor do not provide relief, you and your doctor may look into surgical options.

Call 911 immediately if you experience symptoms of high fever, severe neck pain and light sensitivity. These may be signs of meningitis which requires urgent treatment and follow-up.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Stiff Neck

  • Q.How long has your neck stiffness been going on?
  • Q.How severe is your neck stiffness?
  • Q.Are you experiencing a headache?
  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, check our stiff neck symptom checker.

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Stiff Neck Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced stiff neck have also experienced:

    • 8% Headache
    • 6% Pain in One Shoulder
    • 4% Pain in the Back of the Neck
  • People who have experienced stiff neck had symptoms persist for:

    • 52% Less Than a Day
    • 19% Less Than a Week
    • 16% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced stiff neck were most often matched with:

    • 2% Tension Headache (First Onset)

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