Stiff Neck: Causes & Care

Aches and pains are part of life—caused by everyday activities, overuse, illness, and often amplified during cold weather and increased with aging. A common complaint is stiffness and pain in the neck and shoulder.

What does a stiff neck feel like?

When we have a stiff neck, we often feel soreness which makes it difficult to move our head from side to side. Some experience slight, yet annoying discomfort while others have strong, sharp, and limiting pain. Intense discomfort might make it difficult to continue everyday activities.

What causes a stiff neck?

The most common cause of a stiff neck is muscle or soft tissue strain. Many common activities can lead to strains and stiffness in the neck, including

  • Sleeping with the neck in an awkward position,
  • Poor posture, including slouching to view the computer monitor, looking down at a mobile phone or reading materials,
  • Stress or anxiety that leads to tension in the neck,
  • Holding the neck in an abnormal position for a long period of time,
  • Falling or a sudden impact that pushes the head to the side, more common during athletic activities, or
  • Turning your head from side to side repeatedly during activities like swimming.

The cause might be obvious if symptoms begin right away like after a fall. Other times, it might be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. Determining when the pain first appears, might help.

  • Did your neck feel stiff upon waking?
  • Did the stiffness appear after strenuous activity like moving furniture or lifting heavy items?
  • Does discomfort increase after long periods of sitting or standing?

Identifying the cause of your stiff neck, can be helpful in treating and preventing future pain.

How can I find relief?

In most cases, neck pain and stiffness will go away naturally within a week. Some common self-care strategies that can speed recovery include:

Rest: A day or two of rest can allow soft tissues a chance to heal. Reduce exercise and activities that involve neck movement. To prevent prolonged stiffness and muscle weakness, limit your rest to a few days.

Cold and/or heat therapy: Cold therapy (ice packs) can help relieve most types of neck stiffness by reducing inflammation. Apply ice during the first 24 to 48 hours of symptoms to get the most benefit. Heat therapy can increase blood flow and improve healing. Alternating between cold or heat might bring the most relief.

Over-the-counter pain relivers: If pain is significant, an over-the-counter Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen (i.e., Motrin, Advil) might bring relief.

Gentle stretching: When tolerable, stretching the neck muscles can help restore your natural range of motion.

Please note: wearing a brace is not advised, unless proscribed by a doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have not gotten relief after a week, check in with your doctor. Reach out to your doctor right away, if you experience a stiff neck accompanied by red flag symptoms including a fever, headache, nausea or vomiting or unexplained sleepiness.

How can I prevent neck pain?

Practice good posture. Be mindful of your posture (how you sit and stand) throughout the day. Lift heavy items with your legs rather than your back. Sleep on your back or side with an ergonomic pillow or utilize an ergonomically friendly workstation that reduces slouching.

Keep your neck strong and flexible. Strong and flexible neck muscles improve posture! If you are prone to stiff necks, speak with your provider about physical therapy and/or neck exercises and stretches to help improve strength and flexibility.