What causes a stiff neck?

A stiff neck may be caused by conditions that originate in the neck itself, or by diseases and conditions of related areas, such as the shoulders, jaw, head, or upper arms. A stiff neck is often caused by factors that cause a strain of the neck or shoulder muscles, such as sleeping in awkward positions, poor posture, or strenuous activities.

The levator scapulae muscle is located at the back and side of the neck and connects the neck to the shoulder. As a result of its position and the forces acting upon it, this muscle is easily strained.

Neck stiffness and discomfort can also be caused by diseases, disorders and conditions of any of the structures that make up the neck, such as the cervical spine and spinal cord, nerves, intervertebral discs, muscles, ligaments, tendons, thyroid gland, trachea, and throat.

Musculoskeletal causes of neck stiffness

A stiff neck may be due to muscle strains, ligament sprains, and other musculoskeletal problems. Causes include:

  • Activities involving repeated side-to-side turning of the head

  • Cervical spine fracture or spinal cord trauma

  • Excessive stress or tension

  • Holding the neck in an abnormal position or immobile for long periods

  • Injuries, falls, or other trauma, such as a motor vehicle accident or sports injury

  • Osteoarthritis (type of arthritis characterized by degeneration of the cartilage and bone in the joints) and rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

  • Poor posture

  • Sleeping or resting in an awkward position

  • Spinal degeneration (spondylosis, a degenerative disc disease)

  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal causing pressure on the spinal cord or nerves), which can be caused by a herniated disc in the neck and other conditions

  • Whiplash (cervical sprain or strain)

Diseases and conditions that can cause a stiff neck

Diseases or conditions that can affect the neck include:

  • Brain aneurysm (cerebral aneurysm, a bulging of the wall of a brain artery)

  • Cancer, including spinal tumors and multiple myeloma (blood cancer)

  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)

  • Headache such as migraine

  • Heart attack

  • Infections such as influenza (flu), cervical spine infection, or meningitis (a serious bacterial infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord)

  • Osteomyelitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal bones)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a stiff neck

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your stiff neck including:

  • In what part of the neck do you feel stiffness?

  • When did the symptoms start?

  • Have you experienced any recent trauma or injury, such as a sports injury or motor vehicle accident?

  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as fever, headache or numbness?

What are the potential complications of a stiff neck?

Neck stiffness due to overuse or minor strains usually responds to home treatments, such as rest, ice, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. However, in some cases, neck stiffness may become a chronic condition and affect your daily life. Over time, neck stiffness can lead to complications including:

  • Absenteeism from work or school

  • Chronic pain

  • Disability

  • Poor quality of life


What is a stiff neck?

A stiff neck is pain, soreness or discomfort in the neck, which is often most noticeable with neck movement. If you have a stiff neck, you may find that you need to turn your entire body in order to look to the side or behind you because of the discomfort. A stiff neck is a common condition, and most people will experience it at some point in their lives.... Read more about stiff neckintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with a stiff neck?

A stiff neck may occur by itself or it may be accompanied by other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying cause, your medical history, and other factors. Additional symptoms that may occur with a stiff neck include:... Read more about stiff necksymptoms

Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD Last Annual Review Date: May 12, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles

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