Stiff neck is often a result of minor muscle strains or sprains and usually recovers quickly over the course of a few days, even without medical intervention.
Most cases are benign and can be left to heal on their own. Some, however, can be signs of more serious conditions.
Here, we take a look at the causes of stiff neck, its home remedies, and the treatments used when stiff neck gets serious.
What are the causes of stiff neck?
In the vast majority of cases, stiff neck is benign and goes away after a few days — probably resulting from a sprain/strain in the neck due to bad postural habits, office ergonomics, excessive movement, or sustained injury.
Sometimes, however, a stiff neck can be a sign of something worse.
Some causes of stiff neck are:
Minor muscle strains/sprains
Minor muscle strains/sprains
Sprains are defined as the stretching or tearing of ligaments, whereas strains are the stretching or tearing of muscles or tendons.
Sprains/strains can occur when:
sitting or slouching for long periods, such as at a desk
looking down repeatedly at one’s phone
sustaining a sports injury
experiencing a fall
having tense muscles due to stress
When the neck is strained/sprained, this can cause pain and stiffness in the neck area. If there is no serious damage in the neck area, the pain and stiffness usually goes away after a few days.
Whiplash is a neck injury that involves a forceful, rapid back-and-forth of the neck, similar to the cracking of a whip.
This injury is commonly caused by car collisions, sports accidents, physical abuse, falls, and other types of physical trauma.
The abrupt back-and-forth of the neck puts the neck muscles under a great deal of stress within a short period of time, forcing the neck to go beyond its normal range of motion.
A whiplash injury may also damage several structures along the neck area, resulting in disc, ligament, and muscle tears.
In addition to neck pain and stiffness, a whiplash injury also manifests the following symptoms:
disturbance of memory and concentration
limited range of motion in neck
neck pain that may radiate to the shoulder and upper arm
pain with neck movement
weakness/numbness of the arm
Arthritis of the neck (cervical spondylosis), a condition that causes deterioration of the vertebrae, discs, and ligaments in the neck/cervical spine, can also cause neck pain and stiffness.
Since it is a degenerative disease, cervical spondylosis is most common in those with age, specifically those over the age of 40. It becomes much more common in the elderly, with about 85% of people over the age of 60 being diagnosed with cervical spondylosis.
The deterioration of the neck structures causes them to lose their ability to absorb shock, which can increase the risk of associated symptoms such as:
numbness in the arms or hands
weakness in the arms or legs
Meningitis is an infection of the linings of the brain underneath the skull (called themeninges) that causes them to swell rapidly. The infection is usually viral or bacterial.
Because the skull is an enclosed space, the swelling of the meninges can squash the brain, which leads to the following symptoms:
sudden fever, usually with a headache, a stiff neck, or both
nausea and vomiting
confusion, irritability, or both
an inability to wake from sleep
The meninges cover not only the brain, but also the spinal cord, which reaches all the way down from the back right up to the neck.
Because of this, patients with meningitis can suffer from neck pain and stiffness, resulting from the swelling of the meninges in the neck area.
Stiff neck remedies
Here are a few ways to get rid of a stiff neck at home:
Reduce stress. Stress can cause the neck muscles to tense up. When they tense up too much, the neck can stiffen up. Reduce stress by listening to music, meditating, taking a break, or doing something you enjoy.
Avoid strenuous activity. Big, sudden movements can aggravate the pain and stiffness by causing more inflammation. To avoid worsening the pain, avoid strenuous activity.
Gentle stretching. Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles, which shortens recovery time and reduces muscle soreness. To reduce the pain and stiffness, do some gentle stretches a few times per day.
Ice/heat therapy. Heat increases the flow of blood and nutrients to an area of the body, which makes it great for reducing stiffness. Cold, on the other hand, slows blood flow, which helps reduce swelling and pain. Apply ice/heat on the neck area for 20 minutes a few times a day to relieve neck inflammation.
Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers. If the pain becomes too unbearable or interferes too much with work, we recommend taking over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, or acetaminophen.
Stiff neck treatments
Your doctor may recommend the following treatments to treat stiff neck:
Chiropractic adjustments. Involves a trained specialist who uses their hands (or a small instrument) to apply a controlled, sudden force to a spinal joint. Procedures are non-invasive.
Active release technique (ART). A hands-on therapy designed to aid the body’s natural recovery process. ART uses hand pressure and motion-based massage to gently remove scar tissue, alleviate nerve tension and restore flexibility to tight, stressed muscles. It is typically used on patients with injuries and chronic conditions resulting from overuse.
Botox injections. Botox injections have long been used to relax muscles and treat uncontrolled muscle contractions caused by various medical conditions. When injected into the neck muscles, Botox can relieve neck pain and stiffness, especially when combined with physical therapy.
Our neck pain specialists in Manhattan create custom treatments designed to meet the needs of people suffering from acute pain due to injury, as well as those experiencing chronic conditions affecting the muscles, discs, soft tissue and nerves within the neck and cervical spine.
Our team, consisting of a board-certified physiatrist, chiropractors, and physical therapists, offers comprehensive treatment for acute and chronic neck pain treatment in NYC.
We use a holistic approach focused on:
Alleviating your pain
We do all this while equipping you with the information you need to prevent future injury and pain.
Book an appointment
If you live or work in the NYC area, relief from neck pain and discomfort is just a phone call away.
To get in touch, schedule an appointment now or call us at 212-362-4742. We also offer Telehealth appointments, where you can book an assessment from the comfort of your home.
For minor cases of stiff neck, resting and gentle stretching are great for reducing pain. They don’t eliminate the pain right away but having enough sleep and regularly stretching the neck muscles can help a lot with recovery. For more severe cases of stiff neck (resulting from serious musculoskeletal conditions), you should consult a physical therapist for the correct guidance.
How do I treat a stiff neck from sleeping?
If you got a stiff neck from sleeping, you can try some gentle stretches to reduce the pain and stiffness. Refrain from any strenuous activities to avoid aggravating the stiff neck. If the pain becomes too unbearable, ice/heat therapy or painkillers can help. We also recommend consulting a physical therapist near you.
What does a headache with a stiff neck mean?
Neck pain and stiffness can cause the neck muscles to tense up, and when they tense up, the result can be a headache. So it’s not unusual to get a headache with stiff neck, as the latter is known to cause the former. But it’s important to note that neither condition should be too intense. If it comes to that, consult a physical therapist immediately.