A stiff neck is a common complaint which will probably affect everyone at some point in their life. It is, however, usually short-lived, lasting for just a few days at a time. More often than not a stiff neck is caused by muscular tightness.
Symptoms of a Stiff Neck
- A tight, stiff feeling in the neck and surrounding muscles.
- Difficulty moving the neck, especially turning the head.
- Some people may experience headaches.
- Pain may radiate down into the back or down the arms.
More often than not a stiff neck is caused by tight neck muscles. A muscle in the neck may have been strained (pulled/torn) or have gone into spasm. Levator scapulae muscle is a common cause of neck pain and stiffness. Poor posture, repetitive neck movements, unusual neck positions (especially when sleeping), stress, sports activities or lifting weights can increase the likelihood of suffering from this.
A stiff neck can occasionally be a symptom of another condition, such as meningitis, although this would feature other symptoms such as a temperature, nausea or vomiting. Neck injuries and problems with the vertebrae or discs may cause a stiff neck due to muscle spasms which help support and protect the injury.
Rest is essential to cure a stiff neck. Avoid any activity that may have caused it or increases pain. Often if a neck strain has occurred the pain is so severe in the early stages that movement will not be possible anyway.
Gently stretching the neck muscles if pain allows can increase mobility and reduce pain over the long term.
Neck rotation stretch - Stretching the neck from side to side like this can help ease neck aches, especially if you apply gentle overpressure with your hand. Start facing straight forwards and with your arms in front of you. Keep the elbows straight and clasp your hands together to stop your shoulders from elevating. Turn your neck so that your chin moves towards your shoulder. Hold for between 10 and 30 seconds. This can be varied when twisting the head, by lifting the chin slightly upwards to place more emphasis on Sternocleidomastoid at the front of the neck.
Lateral neck flexion stretch targets the upper trapezius muscle. This stretch can be very useful for people who suffer from tight, aching muscles in the upper back and neck, such as those who work at a computer. Look straight forward and do not let the chin drop down. Move your ear towards the shoulder but do not let your shoulder lift up. Hold for between 10 and 30 seconds. Increase the stretch by using the left hand to apply gentle pressure to the right side of the head.
Apply a heat pack (if there was a sudden point of pain for example if you suffered a neck strain then it is possible muscle damage or tearing has occurred in which case avoid heat for at least 48 hours as this can increase bleeding and the time is taken to heal.
Sports massage is usually very effective in relaxing the muscles. Deep tissue massage can be performed after an initial acute stage and in conjunction with heat can really help relax and stretch the painful muscles.
A doctor may prescribe painkillers or NSAID anti-inflammatory medication such as Ibuprofen (check contraindications) to reduce pain and inflammation.