A stiff neck is typically characterized by soreness and difficulty moving the neck, especially when trying to turn the head to the side. A stiff neck may also be accompanied by a headache, neck pain, shoulder pain and/or arm pain, and cause the individual to turn the entire body as opposed to the neck when trying to look sideways or backwards.
Symptoms typically last for a couple of days or a week and may prompt neck pain that ranges from mildly painful but annoying to extremely painful and limiting. While there are a few instances in which neck stiffness is a sign of a serious medical condition, most episodes of acute neck stiffness or pain heal quickly due to the durable and recuperative nature of the cervical spine.
Stiff Neck Causes and Symptoms
The most common causes of a stiff neck include, but are not limited to, the following:
Muscle Strain or Sprain
By far the most common cause of a stiff neck is a muscle sprain or muscle strain, particularly to the levator scapula muscle. Located at the back and side of the neck, the levator scapula muscle connects the cervical spine (the neck) with the shoulder. This muscle is controlled by the third and fourth cervical nerves (C3, C4).
The levator scapula muscle may be strained or sprained throughout the course of many common, everyday activities, such as:
- Sleeping in a position that strains the neck muscles
- Sports injuries that strain the neck
- Any activity that involves repeatedly turning the head from side to side, such as swimming the front crawl stroke
- Poor posture, such as slouching while viewing the computer monitor
- Excessive stress, which can lead to tension in the neck
- Holding the neck in an abnormal position for a long period, such as cradling a phone between the neck and shoulder.
- Read more: How Poor Posture Causes Neck Pain
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Meningitis / Infection
A stiff neck, in conjunction with a high fever, headache, nausea or vomiting, sleepiness and other symptoms, may be indicative of meningitis, a bacterial inflection that causes the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord to be inflamed. Other infections can also cause stiff neck symptoms, such as meningococcal disease, an infection in the cervical spine. Any time a stiff neck is accompanied by a fever, it is advisable to seek immediate medical attention to check for these possibilities.
Cervical Spine Disorders
Many problems in the cervical spine can lead to neck stiffness. The stiffness can be a reaction to the underlying disorder in the cervical spine. For example, a cervical herniated disc or cervical osteoarthritis can lead to neck stiffness, as the structures and nerve pathways in the cervical spine are all interconnected and a problem in any one area can lead to muscle spasm and/or muscle stiffness.
Stiff Neck Treatments
As a general rule, it is advisable to seek medical attention if the stiff neck symptoms do not subside after one week. Immediate medical attention is recommended if neck stiffness is noted after a traumatic injury, or if there are additional troublesome symptoms, such as a high fever.
In the vast majority of cases, a stiff neck may be treated within a few days.
- For more information on persistent neck pain see What Condition is Causing My Chronic Neck Pain?