What to Know About a Stiff Neck

6 min read

Is your neck feeling stiff and sore? You're definitely not alone. A stiff neck is more common than you might think. According to Harvard Medical School, about 80 percent of people experience neck discomfort at one time or another. And let's be honest: With so many of us looking down at smart phone screens for hours each day, it's no surprise that a stiff neck is the result.

Why is a stiff neck so common? Your neck consists of many parts, from tendons and ligaments to bones and muscles. Not only does it work hard all day supporting your head, many of these parts can move in multiple directions. This means it's easy to overuse or even injure your neck, even through simple, everyday habits. 

Here's what you should know about how to treat and prevent a stiff neck.

Causes of a Stiff Neck

Usually, a stiff neck is the result of overuse, overstretching, or strain. An injured vertebrae may also lead to stiffness or pain. Here are a few common culprits that may lead to stiff neck:

  • Poor posture, slouching or slumping... often the result of looking down at a smartphone screen
  • Sleeping with the neck in a twisted position 
  • Conditions such as arthritis
  • Certain diseases, such as meningitis

Let's dive deeper into these common causes of a stiff neck.

 Related Read: How to Reduce Neck Pain

Strains May Cause a Stiff Neck

Minor injuries, such as strains, can lead to neck stiffness and discomfort. Strains are usually due to muscles or tendons being overused. This type of injuries can be caused by:

  • Looking down at a cell phone for an extended period
  • Sleeping in an awkward position
  • Falling
  • Slumping or slouching for a long time
  • Sports and physical exertion
  • Sleeping with the neck misaligned
  • Carrying stress or tension in the muscles

Arthritis May Lead to Neck Stiffness

Also known as cervical spondylosis, arthritis can cause neck stiffness. Remaining in the same position for long periods of time — such as while working at a desk or driving — can make it feel worse. Sometimes, laying down can help relieve stiffness.

Along with stiffness, arthritis of the neck may cause symptoms such as weak arms or legs, numb arms and hands, and headaches. Talk to your chiropractor about any of these symptoms you might be experiencing so they can be sure to do an evaluation for arthritis or other conditions in the neck.

Whiplash: A Stiff Neck Culprit

If you've ever been rear-ended, or you make a sudden fall, you're probably familiar with the neck pain that comes with whiplash. This type of injury takes place when your head whips back and forth violently.

The sudden movement affects the bones, ligaments, muscles and nerves of the neck, leading to stiffness and pain. While there's not much you can do to prevent whiplash, it can be treated by a chiropractor for faster relief.

If you're experiencing other symptoms such as these, talk to your doctor to have an evaluation for any brain injuries or concussion that may be a result of an accident:

  • Headaches
  • Shoulder or back pain
  • Dizziness
  • Burning or prickling sensations in the neck
  • Memory or concentration problems

Meningitis: A Less-Common Cause of Neck Stiffness

If you develop a stiff neck along with one or more of the following symptoms, it could be meningitis:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe headache that seems different from normal
  • Headache with nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating

Seek medical help immediately if you feel it could be meningitis that's causing your stiff neck.

Stiff Neck Treatment Options

Many cases of stiff neck will resolve themselves within a few days, though sometimes it may take weeks for the stiffness to fully go away. For some, though, the stiff neck just won't go away and requires treatment. Fortunately, there are many stiff neck treatment options available to you. 

Let's look at different ways to treat a stiff neck.

Ice or Heat

Just as with other minor strains, applying ice can help reduce swelling and inflammation. Ice also numbs the injured area, which can relieve pain. In most cases, ice works best within the first two to three days after the neck is injured. That's because this is when swelling is the most pronounced.

To treat a stuff neck with ice, apply an ice pack wrapped in a cloth for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Wait for 20 to 30 minutes between each ice application. 

Heat may also help relieve a stiff neck. You can apply a hot compress or heating pad, or relax in a warm bath or shower. You may find it helpful to alternate ice and heat applications.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs

If ice and heat just aren't enough, you may consider trying over-the-counter pain relief such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. These non-prescription medications can help reduce inflammation and pain.

Chiropractic Care for Neck Stiffness

One of the best ways to relieve neck stiffness and pain is at the chiropractor. For most people, a stiff neck will go away on its own, but after a day of not turning your head with ease, you may be ready to get some help! Chiropractors are able to help relieve stiff neck pain with a few different treatments. The right treatments for you will depend on what's caused the pain. 

Some of the most common chiropractic treatments given for stiff neck pain at Village Chiropractic include one or more of the following:

How to Prevent a Stiff Neck

We've talked about how to treat a stiff neck; now let's explores ways to prevent stiffness in the first place. From stretching to changing the positions in which you sleep and work, these proactive steps can help ward off a stiff neck before it starts.


Regular stretching is an effective way to prevent stiffness while keeping muscles flexible and strong.

You can do some exercises anywhere, anytime;  simply roll your head from side to side, using a gentle, slow motion. Next, roll your shoulders slowly forward and backward. When you have a few more minutes, do these neck retraction and neck rotation stretches.

Sleeping Positions

The way you sleep may affect your neck. Train yourself to sleep only on your back or side. Avoid stomach sleeping, as it can twist your neck. 

A supportive mattress and pillow are also important, helping ensure your back, neck and head are aligned while you sleep. If you sleep on your back, choose a large, firm pillow. For side sleepers, a flatter pillow may be a better choice.

Everyday Habits that Can Lead to a Stiff Neck

Changing some everyday habits can have a big impact on neck stiffness and help stop the problem before it begins. Here's where to start:

  • Using correct posture (which means no slouching or slumping), especially when using a smart phone
  • Using an earpiece instead of holding a phone between your ear and shoulder
  • Holding cell phones and tablet devices at eye level, rather than looking down at them
  • When carrying bags, be mindful of weight pulling on shoulders and straining neck muscles; a backpack or rolling bag may be a better choice for your neck
  • Using proper ergonomics at work, such as keeping screens at eye level and not holding your head in front of your neck (craning)
  • Taking breaks from sitting at least once per hour

If you're experiencing a stiff neck, Village Chiropractic in The Woodlands is here to help! Request an appointment  and learn how we can help relieve neck stiffness and pain. 

Request an appointment

Back to Blog >


More from Our Blog on This Topic