Waking up with a stiff neck can ruin your whole day, even if you managed to get a good night’s sleep.
You can usually feel a sore, painful, or stiff neck as soon as you wake up and every time you attempt to turn, bend, look up, or to the side.
Not only is a stiff neck extremely inconvenient, but if not looked after, it could lead to a long-term ‘pain in the neck’, in quite the literal sense.
In this article, we’ll explore the main causes of a stiff neck and look at remedies and preventative techniques to help deal with it.
We’ll also look at instances when a stiff neck would need to be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
Neck stiffness can occur for different reasons, and most of the time, it is not a cause for serious concern.
Something as simple as sleeping in the wrong position or pulling a muscle while lifting something can trigger the stiffness.
Some of the most common causes of a stiff neck include:
- Exercise or muscle pull: Exercise, heavy lifting, and other strenuous physical labor could lead to a stiff neck if proper precautions are not taken. If you are not used to physical activity and suddenly change your exercise level, you might strain your neck muscle, making it stiff and painful.
- Poor posture: This is applicable throughout the day, whether you’re standing, sitting, or sleeping. If you sleep on a pillow that is not comfortable or is pulling your head and neck into an abnormal angle, then you might wake up with a stiff neck. Repetitive activities and sedentary positions can also lead to neck sprains and stiffness. This includes using smartphones and other devices in one awkward position for long periods of time.
- Injuries and accidents: A vehicle accident can cause whiplash, leading to a neck sprain and stiffness, and other injuries. If you have been in an accident of any kind, make sure you seek medical help even if you do not notice any symptoms. Injuries that lead to neck stiffness also include falls and bumps and if an object hits you in the head or any other part of the body.
- Certain diseases and ailments: Disorders such as polymyalgia rheumatica, arthritis, meningitis, spondylosis, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer can cause neck stiffness as one of their many symptoms. Because diseases like arthritis can limit a person’s abilities and activities, getting yourself checked by a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis is important. Sudden onset of severe pain or pain lasting more than a few days is a cause for concern and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Less common causes
There are some reasons for neck stiffness that are much rarer.
While these are quite uncommon, it is important to know about them and be evaluated by a physician if you have concerning symptoms.
- Stroke or heart attack: In some cases, a heart attack or stroke can start with pain in the upper body, neck, and shoulders. If you have neck pain associated with chest pain, shortness of breath, or otherwise think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.
- Aortic Dissection: A sudden, severe sharp, or tearing pain in the neck that then moves to the face or down into your chest, may be due to tearing of a large blood vessel in your body, called an aortic dissection. This condition may be life-threatening, and if you have these symptoms, you should be evaluated by a doctor right away.
- Spinal disc abnormalities: While conditions such as cervical radiculopathy, herniated cervical disc, or degenerative disc disease are not so common, one of their symptoms can be stiffness in the neck and other joints.
- Fibromyalgia: This is a rheumatic condition that is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain. The condition affects approximately 2% of the adult population in the United States and causes pain all over the body and not just in the neck area. Other symptoms include fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, migraines, generalized malaise, and depression.
At-Home Remedies for Stiff Neck
There are many remedies and soothing treatments that you can use at home to help relieve the pain and discomfort from your stiff neck.
Apply heat or ice
An ice pack will help soothe any inflammation, while a hot pack will help stimulate blood flow.
Sometimes alternating hot and cold packs helps the most – see which method works for you.
Soaking your body in a warm bath can also help loosen a stiff neck and will help you relax.
Over-the-counter pain relief
Medications such as Tylenol or Advil can be taken on a short-term basis to help with pain management.
However, seek advice from a medical professional before taking any medication yourself, and if you require anything stronger, you may need a prescription from them.
Pain relievers like Tylenol and Advil should only be taken for a few days, and stronger pain medications, such as narcotic medications, should be used sparingly, if at all.
Massage the affected area firmly using your fingertips or a cold or warm compress.
If you are thinking of getting a massage from a licensed therapist, do so only after speaking to a healthcare expert.
Gentle stretches, deep breathing exercises, and mindful meditation can help you relax, manage pain and soothe a stiff neck.
Avoid movements that involve the swift and sudden jerking of the head and neck.
Most neck pain, strains, and stiffness are due to poor posture as well as natural age-related wear and tear.
When exercising, lifting heavy objects, or taking part in other physical activities, be careful not to strain your muscles, and do some light stretches before and after you finish.
Practice proper posture
Try not to hunch your back when sitting and standing for long periods of time.
Be mindful of your posture when sitting and while using electronic devices.
Many of us tend to lie down in uncomfortable positions when using smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Make sure that your computer monitor is always at eye level, and make use of ergonomic products and processes to avoid neck stiffness and body aches.
Take regular breaks throughout your workday and make movement part of your daily routine.
Be mindful of sleep positions
Whether you prefer to sleep on your back, side or stomach, always make sure your spine is aligned, relaxed, and supported.
Use a thick pillow to keep your back straight, and keep a towel or pillow under your knees for added support.
When To Seek Medical Attention
If you undertake the at-home remedies and prevention techniques mentioned in this guide, your stiff neck and any pain in the area should improve in a few hours or days.
If you do not see significant signs of improvement after a week, seek help from a medical professional.
A healthcare expert will ask you some questions about your lifestyle and conduct a physical examination to determine why your stiff neck persists for so long.
While mild neck pain and stiffness can be treated at home, you must seek medical attention if any additional concerning symptoms accompany your stiff neck.
- Pains and aches in other parts of the body
- Lethargy or fatigue
- Numbness and tingling sensations in any part of the body
- Shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing
- Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
- Injuries and accidents that have caused a stiff neck
- Severe and unbearable pain
- Blurry vision
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
A painful stiff neck following an ear, nose, and throat surgical procedure: case report. (2014).