Neck stiffness is almost always a temporary symptom of overusing your neck or sleeping in an unusual position. But it can also be a symptom of meningitis, a dangerous infection that needs treatment right away.Visit a healthcare provider if your stiff neck doesn’t get better on its own in a few days or after you use at-home treatment options.
What is a stiff neck?
Neck stiffness is a broad term for anything that makes it hard to move or use your neck. It’s an extremely common symptom of many issues and health conditions.
Your neck is a complex network of bones and tissue, including:
Vertebrae: The bones in your spine are called vertebrae. The medical term for your neck is your cervical spine — the first seven vertebrae in your spine.
Muscles: Twenty neck muscles support your neck and let it move.
Ligaments: Ligaments in your neck hold your vertebrae together and keep your neck stable.
Disks: Shock absorbers between your vertebrae.
Nerves: Eight pairs of nerves in your neck help you feel and move muscles in your neck, shoulders, arms and hands.
Anything that affects any of the parts of your neck can lead to neck stiffness. Some people experience temporary neck stiffness. Others have a stiff neck that comes back (recurs) often enough that a healthcare provider will diagnose it as chronic stiffness.
How serious a stiff neck is usually depends on the other symptoms you’re experiencing. For example, if you wake up with a stiff neck after a nap on the couch, there’s a good chance you have some temporary muscle issue that’ll go away on its own. But if you have a stiff neck, fever, headache and nausea, you might have meningitis — a serious infection.
Having a stiff neck is almost always a temporary issue you can treat at home or that gets better on its own. However, it can also be a symptom of serious health conditions that need to be treated by a healthcare provider immediately.
Visit a healthcare provider if you have a stiff neck and are worried you might have a serious issue. Trust your body and listen to what it’s telling you. Even if your neck stiffness isn’t caused by something serious, a provider can tell you the best way to treat it at home.
What does a stiff neck feel like?
It will be hard to move your head and neck if you’re experiencing neck stiffness. Depending on what caused the stiffness, you might also feel:
Numbness or tingling in your neck, shoulders or arms.
What are the most common causes of neck stiffness?
The most common causes of neck stiffness include:
Muscle and ligament issues.
Injuries or traumas.
Muscle and ligament issues
Muscle or ligament conditions that cause neck stiffness can include:
Sleeping in an unusual or uncomfortable position.
Looking at screens for too long (especially tilting your head down to look at a phone, computer or tablet).
Tension caused by stress.
Traumas that affect your neck can cause stiffness, including:
Arthritis causes pain and inflammation in your joints, including in your neck. Types of arthritis that can cause neck stiffness include:
Meningitis is inflammation in the area surrounding your brain and spinal cord (your meninges). It’s usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It’s one of the most serious causes of neck stiffness.
It can cause permanent damage to your body if it’s not treated right away.
How is neck stiffness treated?
Which treatments you’ll need for neck stiffness depends on what caused it.
The most common at-home treatments for a stiff neck include:
Rest or avoiding the activity that caused the stiffness.
Over-the-counter (OTC) NSAIDs. Talk to a healthcare provider before taking NSAIDs for more than 10 days in a row.
Treatment for neck stiffness caused by arthritis usually includes the at-home treatments listed above. A healthcare provider or physical therapist might give you stretches or exercises to strengthen the muscles around your neck.
Meningitis treatments usually include:
Medication to treat the virus, bacteria or fungus that caused the infection.
IV (intravenous) fluids.
Does neck stiffness go away without treatment?
Sometimes a stiff neck gets better on its own with no treatment. Visit a healthcare provider if you’re having trouble moving your neck or can’t move it as far as you usually can (a reduced range of motion) and your symptoms don’t get better in a few days.
When is a stiff neck serious?
A stiff neck usually isn’t serious. But if you have meningitis, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible.
Go to the emergency room if you have a stiff neck and any of the following symptoms of meningitis:
Nausea or vomiting.
Light sensitivity (photophobia).
Lack of energy, extreme sleepiness or trouble waking up.
Lack of appetite.
Small round spots that look like a rash (petechiae).
Meningitis can be fatal if it’s not treated as soon as possible.
How long does a stiff neck last?
Depending on what caused the stiffness in your neck, it might go away in a few minutes or later that day.
You might be able to relieve a stiff neck by stretching your arms over your head and slowly rolling your neck in a circle.
Visit a healthcare provider if you’re still experiencing pain or have stiffness that lasts more than a few days.
Almost everyone’s experienced a stiff neck at some point in their life. Whether you accidentally dozed off on the couch or spent a little too much time scrolling on your phone, a stiff neck is usually a temporary reminder to stretch and adjust your posture every few hours. However, if you have a fever, headache, nausea and other symptoms of meningitis, go to the emergency room right away.
A healthcare provider will tell you how to relieve your stiff neck and if you need any treatments.