Neck stiffness and limited range of motion often are the result of poor spinal alignment when sleeping on a soft mattress or thick pillow. After hours of being bent in an unnatural position, the muscles in your neck can suffer spasms or nerves can become irritated. Occasionally, though, a stiff neck may be a symptom of something more serious.
Your neck has muscles, tendons and ligaments that may become stretched or torn during sudden, sharp movement. In the case of muscles and tendons -- the tissue that connects muscles to bones -- such an injury is called a strain. In ligaments -- the tissue connecting two bones together -- it's called a sprain. In either case, doctors generally recommend cold therapy during the first two to three days, over-the-counter pain medication as needed and gentle massage if it does not cause additional pain.
A stiff neck also may be associated with tension headaches. Originally thought to be caused by long-term muscle contraction due to stress, tension headaches now are believed to be a result of overactive pain receptors and problems with nerve signals to the brain. Stress and mood disorders also may play a part. Because tension headache triggers include bad posture and holding uncomfortable positions for too long, they may manifest with a decreased range of motion in the neck.
A stiff neck in combination with a fever and headache may indicate meningitis, or swelling of the tissues around your spinal cord and brain. Meningitis usually is caused by a viral infection but also may be caused by bacteria or a fungal infection. While many cases resolve themselves without treatment, complications can be serious, even life-threatening. For this reason, seek medical help if you have meningitis symptoms. Getting treatment quickly reduces the risk of serious problems.
Cervical dystonia, or spasmodic torticollis, is a rare medical disorder that causes painful, involuntary neck muscle contraction. The disease may force your head to twist forward, backward or sideways uncontrollably. Most common in middle-age women, cervical dystonia can occur at any stage of life and has no permanent cure. Surgery may help severe cases, and injections of botulinum toxin can reduce symptoms for a period of time. It occasionally disappears on its own with no treatment.