The causes of a stiff neck and how to treat it with medicine and stretches

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The causes of a stiff neck and how to treat it with medicine and stretches
A stiff neck can be caused by lack of sleep. stress, and anxiety.PeopleImages/ Getty Images
  • A stiff neck is common and often caused by stress, lack of sleep, and age.
  • To relieve a stiff neck, try stretching, switching sleep positions, and applying heat.
  • If you have a fever or feel disoriented in addition to neck stiffness, seek medical attention.
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That mild ache you get with a stiff neck is commonly caused by muscle strain or tension, which can often be treated by stretching the muscles or massaging the area. And while a stiff neck can be annoying, it will usually go away with time.

However, if you experience other symptoms aside from neck pain, like a high fever, it may indicate a serious medical condition like meningitis or a spinal cord injury.

Here's how to tell if your stiff neck is just a nuisance or something more serious.

Causes of stiff neck

Examples of what may cause irritating, but relatively harmless, neck pain include:

These instances of neck pain usually become more common as we age because our body - including the bones in our spine - typically wears down over time.

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"In our younger years, stiffness and pain are usually temporary and get better with time as well as heat and over-the-counter medications. Neck pain and stiffness, as we get older, is often a sign of arthritis and may require more investigation and treatment," says Alpesh A. Patel, MD, MBA, co-director of the Northwestern Medicine Spine Center and professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Serious medical conditions that cause neck stiffness:

  • Arthritis, the swelling of one or more joints caused by general wear and tear, an infection, or an autoimmune disease
  • Herniated disk, which occurs when a spinal disk slips out of place due to aging or sudden strain from heavy lifting
  • Spinal cord injury, a condition where the spinal cord or nearby tissues and bones are damaged, commonly caused by motor vehicle accidents, falls, or gunshot wounds
  • Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spaces within the spinal canal that can be caused by tumors, spinal injuries, and age.
  • Whiplash, a neck injury that may result from vehicular accidents, physical assault, or contact sports

How to treat a stiff neck

Related Article Module: This simple stretch helps neck pain caused by staring at your phone

According to Patrick F. Doherty, MD, assistant professor of clinical neurosurgery at the Yale School of Medicine, you can do the following to relieve benign neck discomfort:

  • Apply ice or heat: For the first two to three days, apply ice for up to 20 minutes several times a day. On the following days, apply heat to the area by taking warm showers or using a hot compress.
  • Take over-the-counter medicine: You can take ibuprofen or naproxen to relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Massage the neck: A gentle massage may reduce stiffness and relieve tension in the neck area. "Since most stiff neck symptoms occur from muscle strain, muscle massage is ideal," says Doherty. You can do this on your own at home by massaging sore areas.
  • Stretch the muscles: Slowly move your head up and down, and then side to side, to exercise and stretch your neck muscles.

Stretches to relieve a stiff neck

  • Levator Scapula Stretch: Place your right hand behind your head and bring your chin towards the left side of your chest. Repeat the stretch with your left hand, bringing your chin towards the right side of your chest.
  • Upper Trapezius Stretch: Slowly tilt your right ear to your right shoulder, and then repeat the stretch on the other side. Keep your back straight and don't move your shoulders.
  • Shoulder Rolls: Maintain proper posture and roll your shoulders backward. Repeat the stretch in a forward direction.
  • Turtle Stretch: Keep your back straight, and without looking down, slowly move your head forward. Hold the position for five seconds, and then move your head backward.

Repeat each stretch about 10 times before moving on to the next one.

If your neck pain persists or gets worse despite several weeks of home remedies, you need to visit the doctor. A stiff neck may be something serious and require immediate medical attention especially if you experience pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness that spreads into the arms and hands, says Patel.

Symptoms that indicate you should see a doctor

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Coordination difficulties
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Unexplained fatigue

If any of these symptoms apply to you, seek medical attention. You may have meningitis, an inflammation or infection of the tissues surrounding your brain and spinal cord, which needs emergency medical care.

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Insider's takeaway

Most of the time, neck stiffness is caused by muscle tension, poor sleep, or the use of electronic devices for long periods. You can usually treat it by applying ice or heat, stretching the muscles, or massaging the neck area.

If you experience other symptoms aside from severe neck pain, such as a high fever or numbness that spreads to the arms and hands, you need to see a doctor immediately. Your stiff neck might be a symptom of something more serious, like spinal injuries or meningitis.

Sleeping in a new or awkward position may also cause neck stiffness, says Patel. Sleeping on your stomach requires you to twist your head for long periods, so it's best to sleep on your side or your back instead.

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