What to know about a stiff neck

The neck contains muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. These work together to support the head and allow it to move in many directions. The neck may become stiff or painful when overused or injured.

A stiff neck often occurs when one of the muscles becomes strained or tense. Stiffness can also develop if one or more of the vertebrae is injured.

A stiff neck may become painful when a person tries to move their neck or head.

Usually, a stiff neck results from a minor injury or incident. People can often relieve the stiffness at home. In rare cases, however, it can be a sign of a serious illness that requires medical treatment.

Causes of a stiff neck

Stiffness usually occurs when the neck muscles are overused, stretched too far, or strained. This can cause pain ranging from mild to severe that can make it difficult to move the head or use the neck muscles.

The most common causes of a stiff neck include:

Minor sprains and strains

A stiff neck often results from minor injury or strain, possibly due to:

  • sleeping awkwardly
  • sitting or slouching for long periods, such as at a desk
  • looking down at an object (such as a cell phone) repeatedly
  • sustaining a sports injury
  • experiencing a fall
  • having tense muscles due to stress

Whiplash

More severe neck injuries can cause whiplash. People often experience whiplash during car accidents that cause the head to suddenly jerk forward and backward.

Whiplash is an injury to the muscles, bones, ligaments, nerves in the neck, or all of these. It causes pain and stiffness in the neck.

Other symptoms of whiplash include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • back or shoulder pain
  • a feeling of prickling or burning in the neck area
  • memory loss or trouble concentrating

Arthritis

Cervical spondylosis, or arthritis of the neck, can also cause neck pain and stiffness, which may improve when lying down.

The pain may get worse when a person stays in the same position for a long period, such as while driving or sitting in front of a computer. Other symptoms of cervical spondylosis include:

  • headaches
  • numbness in the arms or hands
  • trouble walking, balance problems, or both
  • weakness in the arms or legs

A doctor may diagnose cervical spondylosis with the help of certain tests, such as an X-ray, MRI scan, and a blood test.

Meningitis

Sometimes, a stiff neck is a symptom of meningitis, which can be serious. Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, which are coverings on the brain and spinal cord.

A virus, bacteria, or fungi may cause meningitis. Viral meningitis can get better on its own, but bacterial and fungal meningitis can be life-threatening. Some symptoms of meningitis include:

  • a sudden fever, usually with a headache, a stiff neck, or both
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sensitivity to light
  • confusion, irritability, or both
  • an inability to wake from sleep

A person should seek immediate medical care if these symptoms appear.

 

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