There are pains in the neck and then there are stiff necks. Unlike the former, however, a stiff neck is always an actual physical condition and typically prompts questions on how to relieve it, says interventional pain management specialist Kaliq Chang, MD.
Stiff neck is an extremely common problem, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that nearly 1 in 5 Americans experience neck pain (including stiffness) in a 3-month period due to many various causes.
With 7 cervical vertebrae forming the bony building blocks of the spine in the neck region, the neck is also girded by muscles stretching from the bottom of the skull toward the shoulders and back. When stiffness occurs, it can be accompanied by headache, shoulder pain and/or stiffness in the shoulders, explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist.
“Some people simply wake up with a stiff neck and wonder how it happened, while others can trace the cause to a specific injury or situation,” he says. “The cause is important since it points to specific treatments. But make no mistake, the all-important question among those affected is always how to relieve a stiff neck.”
Causes of a stiff neck
What triggers stiff neck? The causes range from minor to major, Dr. Chang says. They include:
- Muscles weakened over time from misuse or poor posture, such as hunching over a phone or computer
- Sleeping on your stomach, which can twist the head one way or another for hours at a time
- Cervical spine disorders, such as a herniated disc or osteoarthritis
- Repetitive movements that involve turning the head from side to side, such as swimming
- Stress, which can trigger tension knots in neck muscles
- Neck injury from an accident, sports mishap or fall
- Meningitis, which is a dangerous inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that requires immediate treatment
“The vast majority of stiff neck cases are caused by a simple muscle strain or sprain that will resolve on its own over several days,” Dr. Chang says. “But in the meantime, there are several treatment options that can reduce stiffness and pain and help facilitate healing.”
How to relieve a stiff neck?
In most cases, self-care measures will steadily loosen the neck and alleviate stiffness, according to Dr. Chang. These treatments include:
- Applying ice or heat to the stiff area. “You can use a heating pad, hot or cold compresses, or heat applied through a warm shower,” he says.
- Over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- Gentle range-of-motion exercises that stretch the neck from side to side and up and down.
- Gentle massage
- Switching pillows or sleeping without a pillow
- Wearing a cervical collar to rest neck muscles
“While these home treatments, or a combination of them, will almost certainly relieve a stiff neck, if your stiff neck gets worse you should tell your doctor,” Dr. Chang recommends. “You may need more specialized treatment to relieve your stiff neck.”
Kaliq Chang, MD, is an interventional pain management specialist board-certified in anesthesiology at Atlantic Spine Center.