The phrase "pain in the neck" is funny and sometimes accurate. A stiff neck is a common problem, affecting about 10% of the population at any given time. There are many reasons for neck pain, making it difficult to determine the exact cause.
If you wake up with a stiff neck, you're likely experiencing a muscle spasm, or contraction. That's known as a muscle strain. A neck sprain affects the ligaments, or tough tissues that connect and stabilize your bones. Tendinitis — inflammation in the tissue that attaches muscle to bone and controls movement — is another contributing factor for neck pain.
Symptoms of a stiff neck include:
- Tight muscles or muscle spasms
- Inability to move your head, or a decreased range of motion
- Pain that continues to get worse when you hold your head in one position for a long time
A headache that won't go away
Remedies and Treatments for Neck Stiffness
At-home remedies will usually help with the majority of early-stage neck stiffness:
- Apply an ice pack to numb the area and soothe inflamed muscles.
- Take an over-the-counter painkiller, like Tylenol, Advil, or Aleve.
- After a day or two, apply a heating pad or warm compress.
During the next few days, take these precautions:
- Be aware of your movements. Try not to jerk your head quickly or twist your neck. This can cause inflammation.
- Try gentle stretches, moving the head back and forth, then up and down.
- Ask a friend or partner to massage the sore area.
- Wear a neck collar for a few hours to rest stiff neck muscles.
- Sleep without a pillow, or use one that's specifically designed to support the neck.
It's possible to prevent a stiff neck. The majority of neck pain is a combination of bad posture, injury, or general wear and tear as you age. If you experience neck stiffness often, try making some simple adjustments:
Watch Your Posture
Shoulders should be in a straight line over your hips. Ears should be in line with your shoulders.
Adjust Desk Furniture
Your computer should be level with your eyes. Consider raising or lowering your desk monitor or laptop. When you sit, adjust your chair to ensure the knees fall slightly below the hips.
Use Headphones or Speakerphones
If you hold your phone between your ears and shoulder, or look down to text, you're putting the neck in an awkward position that could cause muscle strain. Wear headphones or use your speakerphone instead.
Take Frequent Breaks
Sitting in the car or at your desk can take a toll on your body. Get up every hour, move around, and do some light stretching.
If you carry heavy bags, make sure the weight is evenly distributed between both sides of the body. Excess weight can lead to neck strain.
Find a Supportive Way to Sleep
The head should be aligned with the body. Try placing a small pillow underneath your neck. It may help to sleep on your back and place extra pillows underneath the thighs to align the muscles in your spine.
When to See a Doctor
A stiff neck usually improves over a few days with at-home remedies. Sometimes neck pain is a symptom of a bigger health problem, although this is rare. See a doctor if:
- The pain is severe.
- Neck soreness or stiffness doesn't go away after several days.
- Pain or stiffness travels down the arms or legs.
- You have a bad headache and notice numbness, weakness, or a tingling sensation.
- You've recently suffered an injury — from a car accident or a fall, for example.
Neck Pain in Children
A stiff neck isn't just something that happens to adults. Children also experience neck soreness and pain. At-home remedies like ice packs, massage, neck stretches, and over-the-counter painkillers are also helpful for your kids. Make an appointment with your doctor or pediatrician if your child:
- Has an injury or has recently experienced head or neck trauma
- Is overly tired
- Was bitten by a tick
- Has a skin rash, headache, or flu-like symptoms
- Is nauseous or vomiting
- Is fussy or cranky
- Is an infant and is having problems nursing or sucking a bottle