A stiff neck can be, well, a real pain in the neck. It’s also one of the most common muscles aches both children and adults experience. Common triggers include poor posture, sports-related injuries, exercise-induced strains, repetitive work-related movements — even strenuous housework and landscaping can bring on a stiff neck. While the pain could arise from neck muscles, bones and ligaments, a stiff neck is usually a sign of overuse or straining in the neck muscles.
Neck pains often stem from the spinal cord and are caused by certain (usually temporary) changes in nerve signals. The neck is highly susceptible to stiffness, strains and tightness because of its mobility, range of motion and the vital role it plays in supporting the head through everyday movements.
The intensity of a stiff neck depends a lot on the person and the cause of the pain. Some only experience mild, short-term pain while others deal with extreme soreness, tightness and trouble operating normally. As you’ll learn, a big part of stiff neck prevention involves fixing your posture, sleeping in a supportive position and reducing stress.
Stiff neck symptoms usually dissolve within a couple of days but might last longer, sometimes for several weeks. Neck pain could also wax and wane, becoming worse again with sudden movement, stress or bad sleep.
The most common signs and symptoms of a stiff neck include:
- soreness, pain or tightness in the neck
- trouble moving the neck without pain (especially when rotating the head side to side or rolling the neck down and toward the chest)
- difficulty getting comfortable when sleeping
- tension headaches
- shoulder pain
- arm pain
- loss of range of motion, including difficulty placing the chin on the chest (many flexibility tests advise you to rotate your neck to check for range of motion; you should be able to rotate the head approximately 90 degrees and to bend the neck approximately 45 degrees to the side)
Wondering if your stiff neck is more than just an inconvenience and something to truly worry about?
While there are some circumstances in which a stiff neck can be a symptom of a more serious, underlying health issue (such as an infection), the majority of the time this isn’t the case. Most episodes of short-term (acute) neck pains or neck stiffness are caused by muscle strains, sudden movements to the spine or head, stress, and muscle tension caused by other issues.
The most common causes of a stiff neck (or other neck pains) include:
- fast, usually repetitive movements of the cervical spine, such as during exercise, lifting objects around the house, or when driving and jerking the neck suddenly
- muscle strains around the neck and shoulders; these are most often caused by poor posture that affects the cervical spine (including while working, holding the neck in an abnormal position to talk on the phone, when reading or doing leisurely activities, exercising, or sleeping)
- underlying cervical problems: including bulging discs/herniated disc, cervical degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease, spinal stenosis or bone spurs
- high levels of stress or anxiety; this causes increased muscle tension and inflammation, plus stressing over the pain itself often causes it to worsen
- poor sleep and general lack of rest
- high levels of inflammation caused by a combination of a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, smoking and toxin exposure
- in some cases, underlying health conditions that cause an inflammatory response, like infections such as torticollis or rarer neurologic diseases like meningitis, subarachnoid hemorrhage and posterior fossa tumors can cause a stiff neck. Other symptoms such as a high fever, headaches, persistent back pains along the spine, nausea or vomiting, and fatigue/sleepiness mean you should consult your doctor to rule out other conditions.
Chances are your stiff neck can be resolved without the need for drugs or serious intervention. As a general rule, it’s best to seek medical attention if the stiff neck symptoms don’t go away after about one week. Look for other compounding symptoms to make sure an underlying illness, infection or medical condition isn’t to blame.
1. Chiropractic Care to Help Improve Posture
Chiropractors can help find neck pain relief naturally by measuring the curve of your spine and providing targeted adjustments. An added perk is that chiropractors also show you helpful posture exercises you can work on at home. Chiropractors focus their attention on the health of your spine, aiming for proper alignment to reduce muscle tension and lower the chances for strains or sprains.
Studies show that for every inch your head sticks out from its true center of gravity, your neck bears an extra 10 pounds of stress. It’s not uncommon for chiropractors to see patients with heads jutted two to three inches forward of true center of gravity. This adds an extra 20 to 30 pounds of pressure on their necks.
Chiropractic adjustments and spinal rehabilitation exercises teach you to develop proper posture of the neck, head and shoulders and can reduce pain while also increasing range of motion and overall quality of life. One particular technique for stiff necks is called craniosacral therapy.
A 2021 study tested the effectiveness of different treatment approaches for lowering neck pain: either spinal manipulative therapy from a doctor of chiropractic care, pain medication (over-the-counter pain relievers, narcotics and muscle relaxants) or exercising. After 12 weeks, 57 percent of those who met with chiropractors and 48 percent who followed an exercise program reported at least a 75 percent reduction in neck pain.
At the same time, only about 33 percent of the people in the medication group experienced the same improvements. And the relief continued for those not using drugs. After one year, 53 percent of the drug-free groups continued to report at least a 75 percent reduction in neck pain compared to just 38 percent of the group taking medication.
Regular exercise is important for keeping stress hormones under control, improving muscle strength, lowering inflammation, helping you sleep better and supporting a healthy body weight. All of these things reduce the risk for further injuries and are some of the biggest benefits of exercise.
Inactivity can lead to a weakening of the muscles around the neck that hold the head in place, while physical activity helps circulate oxygen to the soft tissues throughout the spine, which promotes healing. However, the key is safely exercising to reduce the risk for muscle strains or sprains. If you’ve experienced injuries in the past, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or physical therapist to get advice on the best types of exercises for you.
You can also work on improving range of motion in the neck by practicing this simple, Human Kinetics exercise at home. (Just avoid doing this exercise on your own if you feel lots of pain). Start by sitting up tall on a chair and avoid hunching over. Place your left hand behind your head and gently pull it at an angle diagonally toward your knee. Stretch the muscle in this manner for five to 10 seconds, then relax the muscle for five to 10 seconds. Deepen the stretch by slowly pulling your head toward your chest in the direction of your knee until you reach a new ending point. Repeat two or three times, but back off if stiffness worsens.
3. Proper Sleep
Following exercise, make sure to make it a priority to get a good night’s sleep (which means seven to nine hours a night for most adults). Give yourself enough time to recover with proper rest between workouts, and limit repetitive motions that you notice increase pain. Take a break from exercise for several days if you feel a lot of pain, and when pain subsides start to stretch the neck gently to speed up healing.
When it comes to the best sleeping positions for stiff necks, sleeping on your side is the most highly recommended by doctors. If you choose to sleep on your back, try to keep your knees slightly bent upward by using pillows underneath your knees for support. Sleeping on your side keeps the spine in the best alignment, but be sure not to curl yourself up too much. A pillow between the knees in a side-sleeping position is also helpful. You can use a small rolled-up hand towel right under the neck for added support with your pillow if it helps.
4. Eat An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
High levels of inflammation make muscles more susceptible to pain and injury — not to mention inflammation weakens your bones and joints while also reducing range of motion and your ability to naturally heal injuries. If your overall range of motion, strength and flexibility are compromised, you face a higher risk of neck problems. Inflammation can also make it harder to recover from injuries.
You can help control inflammation and speed up your ability to heal by eating a nutrient-dense diet filled with anti-inflammatory foods. This means eating less “empty calories” like added sugar, processed meats, chemically sprayed crops, refined grain products, alcohol and packaged snacks. An anti-inflammatory diet includes healing foods, such as: green leafy veggies; healthy fats, including extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil; sources of protein like cage-free eggs, grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish; and probiotic foods and fermented foods (such as cultured veggies and yogurt).
5. Manage Stress and Pain with Natural Muscle Relaxers
Excessive stress leads to tension around the neck, shoulders and head. This pain causes even more stress, creating a vicious cycle.
During the first 72 hours you experience pain, ice the neck using homemade or store-bought ice packs several times per day. Follow this with targeted heat therapies after the first three days to treat neck muscle pain. Exercising, professional massages, acupuncture treatments (similarly, dry needling) and using essential oils at home are also natural muscle relaxers that are beneficial for treating nerve-related problems.
Heating and massaging painful areas help relax muscles, loosen up tight tissue, increase blood flow and even increase the production of painkilling, calming chemicals we naturally produce. These include endorphins, the same feel-good chemicals unleashed during exercise. For a safe, pain-reducing treatment you can make at home using essential oils, try this Homemade Muscle Rub that includes peppermint essential oil and carrier oils. It penetrates stiff muscles and reduces inflammation.
Other important factors to reduce bodywide inflammation include using natural stress relievers, exercising, avoiding too much alcohol and caffeine, and saying no to smoking and recreational drugs.
The Posture-Stiff Neck Connection
Poor posture affects how the spine and neck muscles work. Straining in the neck muscles is by far the most common cause of a stiff neck. Neck pain often develops from pulling certain muscles abruptly, soft tissue sprains, slouching and injuries to the levator scapula muscle (a thin muscle located at the back and side of the neck, just below the upper part of the trapezius).
The levator scapula muscle is responsible for connecting the upper part of the shoulders to the top of the cervical spine. It’s specifically controlled by the cervical nerves numbered “C3 and C4” and helps rotate the head from side to side, plus tilts the head backward or forward by raising or lowering the shoulders.
Poor posture (hunching or slouching) is one of the leading contributors to sprains or strains in the muscles around the neck. The neck muscles can easily become stiff if posture is poor over a period of time and the cervical curve is impacted (which is responsible for the vertebrae of the neck). This is known as “forward head posture,” which pulls the entire spine out of alignment and leads to many painful symptoms.
Some of the most common reasons forward head posture develops? Often the heavy use of handheld devices, such as cell phones, portable video games, laptops and tablets/e-readers, causes a person to gaze down slightly and strain muscles that hold the head. Sleeping on a pillow that is too high or too flat or that doesn’t support your head can also twist the neck and cause you to wake up with stiffness.
Poor posture, or forward head posture, not only contributes to stiff necks, but can also cause many other symptoms that reduce someone’s quality of life: fatigue, headaches, trouble breathing/asthma due to compression of the lungs, disc compression/bulging discs, TMJ symptoms (pain of the jaw), altered blood flow, muscle spasms, digestive problems due to oxygen deficits and even fibromyalgia.
Improper posture also triggers stiff necks because it can contributes to torn or ruptured discs, a condition that causes the cushiony material inside the disc to leak out and press against a nerve of the spinal cord. In addition to stiff necks, this can cause headaches, dizziness and shoulder pain.
Stress raises inflammation and muscle tension. Psychological stress is another factor that negatively affects overall health status and often causes muscle pains. The levator scapulae muscle raises the shoulders and works statically in times of stress, since the shoulders respond to emotional and physical tension, increasing straining on the neck.
The stress response (often referred to as the “fight or flight response”) is activated even without us knowing when we feel emotionally disturbed, causing the body’s muscles to tighten in an attempt to protect the body from harm. Neck pains, stiffness or tension can follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, fatigue and elevated stress — but whatever you don’t try to “crack” or roll the neck to solve this, since this can make the problem worse.
Studies show that stiff necks and shoulders are major somatic complaints among hard-working, chronically stressed adults (including many sleep-deprived Japanese workers who report low qualities of life and often show above-normal levels of stress hormones). One study looked at the connection between perceived stress and stiff neck and shoulders and found that perceived stress led to both mental impairments in quality of life and also physical complaints.
While definitely a pain, a stiff neck is usually the result of straining or overusing your neck muscles. Luckily, lifestyle adjustments and natural remedies can go a long way in soothing a stiff neck. Go-to, drug-free stiff neck remedies include converting to a side-sleeping position, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising, visiting a chiropractor and correcting posture.
Chronic stress, fast, repetitive movements, spending too much time looking down down at a screen and underlying back problems are all common causes of a stiff neck.
Although much rarer, infections or neurologic diseases like meningitis, subarachnoid hemorrhage or posterior fossa tumors could cause a stiff neck. If you’re also experiencing symptoms of high fever, headaches, persistent back pains along the spine, nausea or vomiting, or fatigue/sleepiness, consult your doctor to rule out other conditions.