Read below about stiff neck, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your stiff neck from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Stiff Neck Symptoms

Stress and tension on the neck and upper body can result in uncomfortable stiffness, aches, and pains that hinder all kinds of daily activity.

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 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 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.

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.

10 Potential Stiff Neck Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  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.

    1 week

    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.

    Tension headache symptoms usually resolve within a few hours but can last up to a week. However, if this particular episode is unusually severe or debilitating, you may want to see a doctor urgently.

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
    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.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, new headache, leg numbness, arm numbness, stiff neck
    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.

    Indefinite

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

    Uterine fibroids are noncancerous tumors in the uterus. They are common in women of childbearing age.

    Treatment ranges from medication to surgical removal of the fibroid.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, irregular period
    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.

    DISH is a lifelong disease.

    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.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, dizziness, being severely ill, stiff neck, arm numbness
    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.

    Indefinite

    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).

    Serious life-threatening condition with a high chance of death. Consultation with a brain specialist (neurosurgeon) is needed to determine outlook.

    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.

    Meningitis is a very serious disease and recovery is variable.

    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.
  • 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 options 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.

FAQs About Stiff Neck

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

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Are you experiencing a headache?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?

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

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Stiff Neck Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced stiff neck have also experienced:

    • 8% Headache
    • 5% Pain in One Shoulder
    • 4% Pain in the Back of the Neck
  • People who have experienced stiff neck had symptoms persist for:

    • 37% Less Than a Day
    • 24% Less Than a Week
    • 22% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced stiff neck were most often matched with:

    • 3% Tension Headache (First Onset)
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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