A stiff or tight neck isn't usually cause for major concern, but it can cause major discomfort. So if turning or lifting your head has started to feel like a Herculean effort, you're likely looking for an explanation — and some relief.
Most cases of neck stiffness are the result of bending the neck for too long, which strains the neck muscles, explains Jian Guan, MD, a board-certified neurosurgeon at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute-South Bay and Spine Institute at Providence Little Company of Mary in Torrance, California.
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But in some cases, the culprit could be more serious. Here's how to figure out what's causing your stiff neck and what you can do to feel better.
1. You're Spending Too Much Time Staring at Your Phone
Long scrolling stretches can take a toll on your neck. Looking down at your device puts your neck into a bent position, which can lead to tightness or stiffness.
"It's the most common cause of modern neck pain," Dr. Guan says. "Doing it for hours at a time puts an enormous strain on the neck and can lead to stiffness and pain even in people without any structural neck problems."
Try to maintain good posture when you look at your phone. Your head should be centered over your pelvis (not hunched over) and your eyes should be looking forward, Dr. Guan recommends. Then raise your phone up to eye level so you're not staring downwards and letting your head hang.
2. You're Stressed
Unchecked stress or anxiety can lead you to tense your muscles. You might clench your jaw, hunch up your shoulders or even stiffen your neck, all without even realizing it.
And that can lead to pain or stiffness in your neck, head or shoulders, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Making time for stress management (like yoga, meditation or journaling) and prioritizing healthy habits (such as getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, exercising regularly, eating a plant-based diet and staying socially connected) can help tame chronic tension over time, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
But if you notice yourself starting to tighten or clench in the moment, try a deep-breathing technique like cyclic sighing, a controlled breathing exercise that encourages long exhalations. It can help slow your breathing and heart rate and put you in a calmer mood, according to a January 2023 Cell Reports Medicine study.
3. You Sprained Your Neck
Any kind of injury or trauma to your neck can lead to pain or stiffness, including sports injuries and car accidents. The injury often stems from whiplash, when a sudden movement (like being jerked in a car or quickly pivoting to a different direction) forces your neck to twist in an unnatural way.
You can reduce inflammation and pain in your neck by applying an ice pack for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, two to three times a day. Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help too.
For severe neck sprains, wearing a soft collar can help support your head and take some of the pressure off your neck, per the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
4. You Have a Pinched Nerve
A pinched nerve happens when a nerve in the neck becomes compressed or irritated, either from age-related wear and tear or a sudden injury.
This compression "causes some of the neck muscles to contract abnormally or causes weakness in some muscles, forcing others to work harder," leading to pain or stiffness in the neck, Dr. Guan says.
The pain might also run down your shoulders or arms.
See your doctor if you think you have a pinched nerve in your neck, recommends the AAOS. They may recommend wearing a soft collar to reduce movement in your neck while the nerve heals, or physical therapy to reduce your neck pain and improve your range of motion.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help ease discomfort. If your symptoms are severe, steroid injections can help.
5. You Have Arthritis
Some types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and post-traumatic arthritis, can affect your neck, per the Cleveland Clinic. As the cartilage around your neck joints wear down, the joints can start to rub directly on each other, causing pain or stiffness.
Rheumatoid arthritis most often affects people AFAB ages 30 to 60 and tends to cause stiffness and swelling throughout the body, along with weakness or fatigue.
Osteoarthritis, which is the result of natural wear and tear, usually occurs in older adults, and may only affect one part of the body.
Post-traumatic neck arthritis can develop after a neck injury.
Different types of arthritis require different treatments, so start by seeing your doctor, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Osteoarthritis and post-traumatic arthritis can typically be managed with lifestyle changes or physical therapy; rheumatoid arthritis is often treated with a medication like methotrexate to prevent long-term complications.
6. You Have Fibromyalgia
If your neck pain or stiffness is accompanied by muscle pain in other parts of the body, fatigue, trouble sleeping and trouble concentrating, the culprit could be fibromyalgia.
The condition, which is thought to be caused by abnormal pain sensors in the brain, isn't well understood. But it's more likely to occur in people AFAB and can coexist with other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ), anxiety and depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There's no cure for fibromyalgia, but different treatments can help manage the symptoms. Regular exercise, physical therapy, pain-relieving medications, massage therapy and even yoga or tai chi can all help make fibro neck pain more tolerable, the Mayo Clinic says.
More Serious Causes of a Stiff Neck
In rare cases, neck stiffness could stem from a serious underlying health problem that requires medical attention. These include:
Meningitis occurs when a viral or bacterial infection causes inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. The inflammation can cause sudden symptoms that quickly worsen, including neck pain or stiffness, nausea or vomiting, light sensitivity, confusion, lethargy and small red bumps on the skin, the Cleveland Clinic notes.
Meningitis most often occurs in children under 5 or those with compromised immune systems.
Seek immediate medical attention if you or someone else has meningitis. The condition can quickly become life-threatening, but it is treatable with medications.
2. Head and Neck Cancer
Cancer of the throat can cause neck pain or stiffness, as well as pain when swallowing, ear ringing and trouble hearing.
Cancer of the salivary glands can also cause neck pain alongside swelling of the chin or facial numbness, according to the National Cancer Institute.
See your doctor if you have neck pain that won't go away or other possible head and neck cancer symptoms. They can perform diagnostic tests and determine the best treatment.
How to Prevent a Stiff Neck
Neck stiffness can often be chalked up to lifestyle habits, Dr. Guan says. To keep the tightness at bay, you can:
- Be mindful about your posture. Bring your phone up to your face instead of bending your head down to stare at your screen. That'll take a lot of pressure off of your neck, says Dr. Guan.
- Check your sleeping position. Your side or back are the most neck-friendly positions, Dr. Guan says. Use pillows strategically to keep your neck and spine in a neutral alignment and prevent neck pain from sleeping. "You should be able to draw a relatively straight line from the top of your head to your lower back," he says.
- Assess your work setup. You should be able to see your laptop or desktop while keeping your neck in a neutral position (aka, looking straight forward rather than up or down), Dr. Guan says.
- Take stretch breaks at work. Periodic neck and shoulder stretches can help relieve neck tightness and prevent it. Try doing these exercises a few times a day if you spend long stretches sitting at a desk.
- Don't carry heavy loads on your shoulders. Trade the heavy backpack or messenger bag for a rolling luggage bag, recommends the Cleveland Clinic.
When to See a Doctor About a Stiff Neck
Most cases of mild neck stiffness will ease up with at-home measures. But you should see your doctor if the stiffness or pain is severe, isn't getting better after a few days, spreads down your arms or legs or is accompanied by a headache, numbness or weakness, recommends the Mayo Clinic.
Seek emergency medical attention if you have symptoms of meningitis or have sustained a severe neck injury. These conditions require immediate treatment.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Neck Pain"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Whiplash"
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: "Neck Sprains and Strains"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Cervical Radiculopathy (Pinched Nerve)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Arthritis Types"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Meningitis"
- National Cancer Institute: "Head and Neck Cancers"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Top Ways to Reduce Daily Stress"
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Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.