What are the causes of a stiff neck? How we can treat it?

Stiffness in the neck can occur because of diseases and disorders of any structure in the neck. There are seven cervical vertebrae in the neck which are the bony building blocks of the spine located in the neck. Basically, these vertebrae surround the canal and spinal cord. There are discs present between these vertebrae, and nearby pass the nerves of the neck.

Other structures and organs present within the neck comprise the neck muscles, lymph glands, thyroid gland, arteries, veins, parathyroid glands, esophagus, larynx, and trachea. Therefore, neck stiffness can be related to symptoms like;

  • headache,
  • shoulder pain, and
  • stiffness in the shoulder

Majorly, stiff neck is due to damage to the bones, nerves, or muscles of the neck. However, stiff neck is also a sign of meningitis along with headache and fever. Moreover, stiffness in the neck may develop as a reaction because of muscle spasm in several conditions which cause neck pain, counting traumatic injuries.

Causes of a stiff neck

Stiffness in the neck usually arises when the neck muscles are stretched too far, overused, or stressed. Moreover, it can cause pain from mild to severe which can make difficult to move your head or use the neck muscles. Following are the most common causes of a stiff neck;

Minor sprains and strains

Awkward sleeping position can cause stiffness in the neck. It can often result from minor injury or strain, maybe due to;

  • sleeping awkwardly
  • sitting for long periods, like at a desk
  • looking down at an object repeatedly
  • any sports injury
  • having tense muscles due to stress


Severe neck injuries can cause whiplash. Whiplash can occur during car accidents which cause your head to abruptly jerk forward and backward.

Basically, it is an injury to the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves in the neck, or in all of these causing pain and stiffness. Therefore, other Whiplash symptoms include;

  • a headache
  • dizziness
  • back or shoulder pain
  • a feeling of irritation or burning in the neck
  • memory loss or trouble concentrating


Cervical spondylosis, or arthritis of the neck, can cause neck pain and stiffness. It may improve when lying down comfortably. But the pain may get even worse by staying in the same position for a long period, like while driving or sitting in front of a computer. Other symptoms of arthritis comprise;

  • headaches
  • numbness in the arms or hands
  • trouble walking, balance problems, or both
  • weakness in the arms or legs

A doctor may diagnose it through certain tests, like an X-ray, MRI scan, and a blood test.


A stiff neck can be a symptom of meningitis, that can be serious. Actually, meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges. These are the coverings on the brain and spinal cord.

Any virus, bacteria, or fungi can cause meningitis. Viral meningitis can get improved on its own, but bacterial and fungal meningitis can be dangerous. Some of its symptoms include;

  • a sudden fever with a headache and a stiff neck
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sensitivity to light
  • confusion, irritability, or both
  • an inability to wake from sleep

In the case of these symptoms, a person should seek instant medical care.

Treatments for a stiff neck

The best method to relieve a pain and stiff neck depends on its cause. Following home treatments may help when the stiffness is minor;

Applying ice

An ice pack may help to reduce the swelling and numb pain. Its use can also help relieve inflammation after a minor strain. The ice can have a distressing effect, briefly relieving pain. Usually, this treatment is most effective within the 48 hours of an injury.

Use a first aid ice pack or cover an ice bag or frozen peas with fabric to avoid frostbite. Apply the ice for up to 20 minutes, then repeat it while taking 20–30-minute breaks.

Applying heat

On a muscle strain, some people alternate using ice and heat. Using heating pads or a hot bath can help relax tense muscles.

Taking over-the-counter medicines

If all these ways do not relieve the pain, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help. Some of its examples include ibuprofen and naproxen.

These medicines can reduce swelling and relieve pain. Furthermore, any individual having a health condition or is taking other medications, should consult a doctor before using NSAIDs.


Stretching the neck muscles mildly and slowly can also relieve pain. It can be done by moving your head from side to side. Also, you can roll your shoulders forward and backward. Moreover, stop rolling if the stretches cause pain.

Checking the sleep environment

Sometimes, a too firm or not supportive mattress can also cause neck pain. A firm pillow of incorrect size may also cause it. Your head, neck, and back should be in an aligned position while sleeping. A pillow of an individual should suit his/her sleeping position.

Paying attention to posture

Slouching can pull the neck muscles and cause stiffness. Throughout the day, an individual should focus on keeping the shoulders, neck, and back in a straight line. A posture-correcting device may help you in this regard. As you can set reminders on a phone or computer.

See a dentist

Continuing neck stiffness accompanied by a jaw pain or headache upon waking can be a symptom of nighttime teeth grinding. A dentist can see your teeth for signs of wear from grinding. Moreover, they may investigate the alignment of the jaw.

Getting a massage therapy

A licensed and experienced massage therapist may help deliver relief from stressed, sore muscles. Though research has not yet verified that massage is operative, a study from 2014 discovered that massage did recover pain for those with neck arthritis.

Other research published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice observed that a professional massage can help relieve stress. Therefore, it may indirectly aid with stiffness in the neck.

Managing stress

There is no proper way to totally avoid stress. However, learning to manage it can decrease tension in the neck. Individuals with high levels of chronic stress must talk with a healthcare professional about ways to manage stress.


A stiffed neck is a very common problem which an individual can treat easily with home remedies and preventive approaches. Usually, it results from injuries which may occur due to whiplash, sleeping awkwardly, stress or having a poor posture.

Typically, neck pain is not a sign of a more serious matter. Don’t ignore it, however, if it comes on unexpectedly and accompanies other symptoms.

Areeba Hussain

Areeba is an independent medical and healthcare writer. For the last three years, she is writing for Tophealthjournal. Her prime areas of interest are diseases, medicine, treatments, and alternative therapies. Twitter @Areeba94789300

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