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Stiff Neck

Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • The top four causes of a stiff neck are identified as injury or trauma, muscle strain, poor posture, and sleeping in an awkward position.
  • Injuries can be caused by sports accidents or heavy lifting, and muscle strain can result from repetitive activities or sudden impacts.
  • Health conditions like meningitis, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, brain tumors, and sciatica can also cause a stiff neck.
  • The article provides potential questions a doctor may ask to diagnose the cause of a patient's stiff neck, such as when and where the pain occurs, and if it spreads to other areas.

Top 4 Stiff Neck Causes

1. Injury or Trauma

Injury and trauma, such as that caused by sports, falling, auto accidents, and carrying heavy objects like purses or backpacks, can lead to a stiff neck. Whiplash is a common type of injury that causes stiffness in the neck; it develops when a sudden blow to the head forces the neck to move beyond its normal range of motion, harming soft tissues and causing pain and stiffness.[1]

A stiff neck caused by injury or trauma might accompany symptoms that include severe, persistent muscle spasms in the neck and severe, persistent neck pain. Tingling, weakness, and numbness of areas in the neck could indicate that injury or trauma has caused serious damage to nerves and tissues in the neck.

2. Muscle Strain

Certain everyday activities can cause muscle strain that leads to pain and a stiff neck. Muscle strain felt in the neck can develop when the muscles and nerves that control the neck experience physical stress or injury. Symptoms of muscle strain can also include swelling, muscle spasms, and tenderness.

Examples of activities that could cause muscle strain include repetitive activities such as moving the head from side to side when swimming and swinging a tennis racket. Muscle strain can also be caused by emotional stress and tension or a sudden impact that pushes the head to the side, such as that caused by falling or an auto accident.

3. Poor Posture

Practicing poor posture can harm your health in several ways, causing decreased flexibility, poor digestion, difficulty breathing, and back, shoulder, and neck pain — including stiff neck. Poor posture can also cause problems with balance and stability to increase your risk for falling and has even been linked to anxiety and worsened mental health.[2]

Poor posture may be caused by lifting heavy objects regularly and maintaining the same position for an extended period of time, such as while working on a computer. You may be able to improve your posture by exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and using ergonomic office equipment.[3]

4. Awkward Sleeping Position

Sleeping in an uncomfortable, awkward position can often lead to stiff neck and neck pain.[4] Factors that cause stiff neck when sleeping include using a pillow that is too high or firm and falling asleep while sitting up in a car, plane, train, or recliner.

Pillows made from feathers and memory foam can conform to the shape of your head and neck to offer better comfort while sleeping and a lowered risk for experiencing stiff neck. Using a pillow that is higher under your neck than your head may also prevent stiff neck, as can using a horseshoe-shaped pillow while traveling that prevents the head from slanting to one side.[5]

Possible Health Conditions Related to Stiff Neck

1. Meningitis

Meningitis is an infection in which the brain and spinal cord membranes become inflamed to cause pain and a stiff neck.[6] Other meningitis symptoms include headache, fever, chills, rash, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light. Meningitis is most commonly caused by bacterial and viral infections, but it can also be caused by fungal infection, tuberculosis, syphilis, autoimmune disorders, and some cancer medications.

Bacterial meningitis is the most serious and life-threatening form of this disease, and it can cause brain damage when left untreated.[7] Meningitis can affect anyone, but it is most common among children under the age of 5, teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 25, and adults over 55. Bacterial meningitis can be treated using antibiotics, and viral meningitis can improve on its own with bedrest and plenty of liquids.

2. Arthritis

Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are two types of arthritis that cause a stiff neck. Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear of joints that happens as part of the natural aging process, and it can affect neck joints, causing limited neck movements and a stiff neck. Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disorder that affects joints throughout the body, including those in the neck, causing pain and stiffness.[8]

Common symptoms for arthritis include stiffness, loss of flexibility, and joint pain; rheumatoid arthritis can cause additional symptoms of fever, fatigue, and weight loss. Arthritis tends to be more common among women, older adults, and people who suffer from obesity.[9] Genetics might also be a cause of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

3. Degenerative Disc Disease

Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which the discs of the spine experience wear and tear as part of the natural aging process. This thinning and weakening of the discs can cause a range of symptoms, including muscle weakness, nerve pain, numbness or tingling in the extremities, and stiffness, sometimes in the neck.[10] This disc disorder can also be caused by sports, exercise, and injuries that trigger swelling, inflammation, and soreness.

Risk factors for degenerative disc disease include being overweight or obese, lack of physical activity, alcohol abuse, and smoking.[11] Treatments for this condition include chiropractic care, physical therapy, medication, and surgery.

4. Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a disorder that heightens the body’s sensation of pain by interfering with the way the brain processes pain. Fibromyalgia causes the muscles in the neck to contract and triggers widespread pain felt throughout the body. Symptoms of fibromyalgia include a stiff neck, nausea, fatigue, sensitivity to pain and cold, insomnia, and anxiety.[12]

Fibromyalgia might be a result of genetics, infections, and physical or emotional trauma, such as that triggered by an auto accident or stress. Treatments for this disorder include medications that reduce symptoms and induce sleep and physical therapies that focus on improving strength and flexibility.[13]

5. Brain Tumor

A brain tumor is a group of abnormal cells that grows in the brain and produces inflammation, putting pressure on the skull and parts of the brain.[14] A brain tumor that resides at the back of the skull may produce symptoms of headache, vomiting, mental confusion, lack of coordination, blurred vision, and stiff neck.

Brain tumors may be caused by genetics and be more likely among those who have weakened immune systems. Common treatments for a brain tumor include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.[14]

6. Sciatica

Sciatica is a condition in which the sciatic nerve becomes irritated, producing symptoms of nerve pain and muscle stiffness that affect the neck.[15] Pain in the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down the legs, might indicate a slipped or herniated disk. Symptoms caused by sciatica usually go away on their own within six weeks and may be treated using surgery if pain continues past the sixth week.[15]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Your Stiff Neck

  • When did you start experiencing neck pain and stiff neck?
  • Where exactly does the pain occur in your neck?
  • Does the pain radiate into other areas, such as your arm or head?
  • Which factors make your stiff neck worse?
  • Have you recently experienced trauma or been in an auto accident?
  • Do you suffer from any other medical conditions?
  • Is your neck pain sudden or gradual?

Stiff Neck May Also Be Known as

  • Torticollis
  • Neck pain
  • Neck strain

Frequently asked questions

  • What are the most common causes of a stiff neck?

    Injury or trauma, muscle strain, poor posture, and sleeping in an awkward position are the most common causes of a stiff neck.
  • Can certain health conditions cause a stiff neck?

    Yes, certain health conditions like meningitis, arthritis, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, brain tumors, and sciatica can cause a stiff neck.
  • How can injuries lead to a stiff neck?

    Injuries, such as those from sports accidents or heavy lifting, can cause trauma to the neck muscles and lead to stiffness.
  • What role does posture play in causing a stiff neck?

    Poor posture, especially when maintained for prolonged periods or during heavy lifting, can strain the neck muscles and cause stiffness.
  • Can sleeping in an uncomfortable position cause a stiff neck?

    Yes, sleeping in an awkward or uncomfortable position can lead to a stiff neck.
  • How can muscle strain result in a stiff neck?

    Muscle strain, often caused by repetitive activities or sudden impacts, can lead to a stiff neck.
  • What questions might a doctor ask to diagnose the cause of a stiff neck?

    A doctor might ask when the pain started, where it occurs, and whether it radiates into other areas to diagnose the cause of a stiff neck.
  • Can brain tumors cause a stiff neck?

    Yes, brain tumors, especially those located at the back of the skull, can cause a stiff neck.

Related Health Concerns


Body & Muscle Aches




Herniated Disc


Joint Subluxation

Knee Injury

Muscle Relaxers

Pinched Nerve

Psoriatic Arthritis


Spinal Decompression

Spinal Stenosis



Tooth Extraction

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