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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 be accompanied by a headache, shoulder pain, or arm pain and cause the individual to turn the entire body – as opposed to the neck – to try to look to the side. Symptoms typically last for a couple days or a week and may prompt neck pain that ranges from mildly painful and annoying to extremely painful and limiting.
While there are a few instances where a stiff neck is a sign of a more serious medical condition, most episodes of acute neck stiffness and pain go quickly due to the durable and recuperative nature of the cervical spine. So let’s talk about some of the causes of a stiff neck. First, there can be a muscle strain. The neck is a great feat in engineering – it has a high degree of mobility, high degree of range of motion and at the same time it protects the spinal cord and protects the nerve endings and allows for protection and stability, yet range of motion. However, because of this excellent range of motion and all the moving particular parts of the spine, there can be pain in the neck.
Triggers for the onset of neck muscle strain can be traced to several common activities that strain the neck anatomy. These activities can include too much time spent in an awkward position, such as hunched over a steering wheel while driving or hunched forward to view a computer monitor or cradling a phone in the crook of the neck, which is oftentimes the very main culprit. Basically, any time in which we are not holding our neck with a very good posture, the muscles become stressed, they can become fatigued, so putting that cell phone against the ear and the shoulder can prompt a stiff neck. Also, holding a purse on one side in which you have to shoulder hug in order to keep the purse strap from falling off – if you maintain this position for a very long period of time, maybe if you’re shopping in the mall for hours, for example, the muscles that connect the neck to the shoulder which cause that shoulder hiking can become fatigued and go into spasm. Also, sleeping in a position that strains the neck such as with a pillow that’s too high or too firm can negate the natural alignment of the spine and therefore cause a stiff neck. Carrying a heavy suitcase or other heavy objects on one side can cause problems in the neck. Any form of trauma that impacts the neck, such as from a whiplash injury in a car accident, for example, can cause a neck injury and a stiff neck.
There are other, more serious symptoms and signs that should be looked out for. For example, if there is a fever associated with the stiff neck, this can be a sign of infection or meningitis. If there is a headache or nausea or vomiting, if you cannot get to sleep, night sweats, and other symptoms can be indicative of an infection and this is something that should prompt a patient to go see a physician sooner rather than later. Other infections can also cause stiff neck symptoms. We mentioned meningococcal disease, meningitis, or infection of the cervical spine itself. Any time a stiff neck is accompanied by a fever, go see a health practitioner.
Cervical spine disorders oftentimes lead to a stiff neck. For example, it may not just be the muscles of the neck; there may be a problem with the facet joints – which are the small joints in the back of the spine which allow for the free motion of the spine. There could also be disc problems, in which case you may feel just axial neck pain – pain in the neck itself – but oftentimes when most discs are bulging, degenerative, or herniated they can cause an irritation of the nerve roots then you can have symptoms that leave the neck and go down into the arms. These symptoms can be pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness. This is a more serious condition and something that should be evaluated by a health care practitioner.