If your neck hurts when you turn it, you’ll soon realize just how often you need to turn your head throughout the day. But a stiff neck can be more than just an annoyance, it may be a sign of an underlying problem that needs medical attention.
Most people who experience a stiff neck will have soreness and difficulty moving the neck, causing them to turn their whole body to look to the side. If you have a stiff neck, symptoms may last from just a day or two to a couple of weeks, and may be accompanied by a headache, shoulder pain and/or pain that radiates down your arm.
To learn more about shoulder and arm pain associated with a stiff neck, see What Is Cervical Radiculopathy?
Causes of a stiff neck
The good news is that a stiff neck is usually not caused by a serious medical condition. However, it is a good idea to take note of any accompanying symptoms, as additional symptoms may indicate a need for medical attention.
- Muscle strain.
Any activity that places your neck in an awkward position for an extended amount of time could cause the muscles around in your neck to become fatigued and spasm. For example, holding your phone against your shoulder while you talk, sleeping with your neck at an awkward angle, carrying a heavy bag on one shoulder, or having to look downward to view your computer screen can all cause neck stiffness.
A newer cause of this is known as "text-neck," a real and growing cause of neck pain and stiffness as a result of people spending more and more time looking down at their smartphones.
Watch: Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease Video
- Cervical spine disorders.
The cervical spine encompasses all of the bones, joints, muscles, and nerves in your neck. Your spinal cord also runs through center of the bones in your cervical spine.
Watch: Cervical Spine Anatomy Video
Any one or combination of these parts of your cervical spine may become worn down over time or injured, causing neck stiffness, pain and/or possible neurological problems. Some cervical spine disorders that commonly occur include:
- Spinal stenosis. Over time, the facet joints in the back of your spine can become enlarged and encroach on your spinal nerve roots and possibly into the spinal cord area. This may develop in conjunction with spinal osteoarthritis, so you may hear your doctor refer to both conditions. Symptoms may include neck stiffness, arm pain and/or tingling, and possibly difficulty walking if the spinal cord is involved.
- Cervical disc problems. Over time, one or more discs in your neck may herniate or degenerate, and this process may in turn irritate your nerve roots causing pain and stiffness in your neck and possibly down into your shoulder, arm and/or hand.
Any of the above conditions should be diagnosed and treated by a qualified health professional. Even if you feel your symptoms are mild, it is a good idea to seek treatment as the right exercise program can go a long way in preventing many cervical spine problems from getting worse over time.
Stiff neck caused by an infection (such as meningococcal disease) is rare compared to the other causes above, but is a serious medical condition. If you experience fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, or other signs of an infection along with your stiff neck, call your physician immediately.