Stiff Neck: Relief and Remedies

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on February 24, 2024
8 min read

The phrase "pain in the neck" was created for a good reason. Waking up with a stiff neck is an annoying and uncomfortable way to start your day. And a stiff neck is a common problem, affecting about 10% of the population at any given time. There are many reasons for neck pain, but it's usually caused by overuse or sleeping too long in an odd position. 

Having a stiff neck in the morning is often a muscle spasm, or contraction, known as a muscle strain. A neck sprain affects the ligaments, or tough tissues that connect and stabilize your bones. Tendonitis--inflammation in the tissue that attaches muscle to bone and controls movement--is another contributing factor for neck pain. 

Neck pain is usually not an emergency. But if you continue to have pain for a few days, at-home treatments don't relieve your pain, or you have other issues like a fever or flu-like symptoms, talk to your doctor to find out treatment options. 


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 tingling sensation or numbness in your neck, arms, or shoulders

Stiff neck and other symptoms

A stiff neck can be a symptom of a very serious condition known as meningitis when it comes with other symptoms including:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • A headache that won't go away
  • Confusion
  • Low energy or intense fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tiny red, brown, or purple spots on the skin that look like a rash

Meningitis, swelling around the brain and spinal cord, is very serious and should be treated as soon as possible. If you have meningitis and it goes untreated, it can lead to death.


Your neck is made up of several different parts. You can have a stiff neck when any one of them is injured, stressed, overused, or has a condition like arthritis. The parts of the neck that are most likely to cause stiffness include:

  • Vertebrae, or bones
  • Muscles 
  • Ligaments, or tissues that connect bones
  • Disks,  or cushions filled with a gel-like substance between the vertebrae in the spine 
  • Nerves, cables that sent electrical impulses from your brain to other parts of the body

There are three main causes of a stiff neck, which are muscle issues, trauma or injury, and disease. 

Muscle and ligament strains can occur for several reasons. Sitting all day hunched over a computer or a phone (also known as tech neck) can strain your neck muscles. Sleeping in an awkward position can cause you to wake up with a tight, stiff neck. You may even have enough tension after a long, stressful day to cause stiffness in your neck. 

Bone spurs can happen as neck joints wear down over time, causing pain and stiffness. 

Nerve compression caused by bone spurs or herniated disks. 

Whiplash caused by a car accident or sports injury. Whiplash happens when the neck is quickly and aggressively moved in any direction -- front to back or side to side. Whiplash can cause injury to bones, muscles, ligaments, or nerves. 

Diseases like cancer and meningitis can cause pain in the neck. Rheumatoid arthritis and cervical spondylosis (arthritis of the neck) are also common conditions that cause neck stiffness. 

It's often 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. Try to keep good posture whether you are walking or sitting. 

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 a speakerphone

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

Switch shoulders

If you carry heavy bags, make sure the weight is evenly distributed between both sides of the body. Excess weight on your shoulders 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 when you sleep. It may help to sleep on your back and place extra pillows underneath the thighs to align the muscles in your spine. Try different sleeping positions and types of pillows to see which causes the least amount of strain for you. 

Stress relief

You may feel neck pain and stiffness when you have stress or anxiety. If you do get neck pain or tension headaches, find ways to help manage your stress. These can include:

  • Hot baths or showers
  • Massage 
  • Yoga or meditation
  • Therapy
  • Exercise or gentle stretching

Preventing whiplash

Whiplash can't always be prevented, but there are ways to reduce the chances it will happen when you are in an accident including:

  • Using your headrests and making sure your seat is in the correct position for you (you can check how to do this in your car's user manual).
  • Placing your seat belt across your shoulders (not behind your back) and wear it snugly.
  • Putting your phone away when you drive and keeping a safe distance between your car and the one in front of you. If you hear brakes slamming around you, put your head back against the head rest to protect it in case of an accident.
  • Avoiding roller coasters and high-impact sports. 

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 acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • After a day or two, apply a heating pad or warm compress.
  • Do some gentle movement or light exercise to get your blood flowing and reduce inflammation--avoid anything that will jerk your neck or make the pain worse.

After a 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. 
  • If you are working at a computer, support your back, keep your computer screen at eye level, and use headphones instead of squeezing your phone between your ear and shoulder. 

Medical treatment 

A stiff, painful neck can often be improved through at-home treatments. But if you have a medical condition, like arthritis, meningitis, or a herniated disk, your doctor may recommend other care. 

Physical therapy. If your neck pain doesn't improve with a few days of home care, your doctor may recommend seeing a physical therapist. They can provide exercises to strengthen your neck muscles and increase range of motion. 

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). A provider will put electrodes near areas where you are having nerve pain and stiffness. The electrodes send out a small electrical current to block pain signals. 

Steroid injections. Steroid shots are given to reduce inflammation near a muscle. 

Surgery. Surgery is typically not required for a stiff neck. But if you have cancer, a herniated disk that isn't improved with at-home therapies, or a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, it may be necessary to relieve pain and stiffness. 

Alternative therapies. Your doctor may recommend massage, acupuncture, or a chiropractic adjustment to each muscle tension and help align your spine.  

Meningitis treatment. This consists of antibiotics (if it caused by bacteria) and possibly corticosteroids to reduce swelling in the brain (for both viral and bacterial meningitis). 

You may be able to get some neck pain relief by doing some gentle stretching. Increasing your range of motion and strengthening the neck muscles are important for relieving neck stiffness. Make sure not to move your head too quickly while doing these and stop if you have any sharp or intense pain. 

Shoulder rolls. Tightness in your shoulders and upper back often happens along with neck pain. Relaxing these muscles can help improve a stiff neck. Inhale and pull both shoulders up toward your ears. As you exhale, roll your shoulders back and downward. Do 5 to 10 rolls. 

Shoulder blade squeezes. Sit on a chair with good, tall posture. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and toward each other and hold this position for 15-30 seconds. Do 3 to 4 repetitions. 

Head tilts. Move your head forward and back (like you are shaking it "yes"). Then do side tilts by moving your right ear toward your right shoulder and holding for a few seconds. Then do the same tilt toward the left side. Repeat each of these 2 to 3 times.

Head presses. Sit up straight with your hands clasped behind your head. Press your head gently back toward your hands while keeping your chin level (not pushing up or down). Hold for a few seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times. 

Begin doing these exercises once daily and move up to 15 repetitions twice a day as your neck stiffness reduces and you can move your neck better. 

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 like a car accident or fall 

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

A stiff neck is usually caused by poor posture or sleeping in an awkward position. At-home remedies like ice packs, pain relievers, and stretching usually take care of the pain and loss of motion within a few days. If your neck pain lasts longer than a few days and you have other symptoms, like a fever, confusion, or intense fatigue, call your doctor.