What Causes a Stiff Neck?

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 22, 2022

Waking up with a stiff neck can ruin your whole day, even if you managed to get a good night’s sleep.

You can usually feel a sore, painful, or stiff neck as soon as you wake up and every time you attempt to turn, bend, look up, or to the side.

Not only is a stiff neck extremely inconvenient, but if not looked after, it could lead to a long-term ‘pain in the neck’, in quite the literal sense. 

In this article, we’ll explore the main causes of a stiff neck and look at remedies and preventative techniques to help deal with it.

We’ll also look at instances when a stiff neck would need to be evaluated by a healthcare professional. 

Causes

Neck stiffness can occur for different reasons, and most of the time, it is not a cause for serious concern.

Something as simple as sleeping in the wrong position or pulling a muscle while lifting something can trigger the stiffness. 

Experiencing stiff neck? Chat with a provider through K Health
Get Started

Common causes

Some of the most common causes of a stiff neck include:

  • Exercise or muscle pull: Exercise, heavy lifting, and other strenuous physical labor could lead to a stiff neck if proper precautions are not taken. If you are not used to physical activity and suddenly change your exercise level, you might strain your neck muscle, making it stiff and painful. 
  • Poor posture: This is applicable throughout the day, whether you’re standing, sitting, or sleeping. If you sleep on a pillow that is not comfortable or is pulling your head and neck into an abnormal angle, then you might wake up with a stiff neck. Repetitive activities and sedentary positions can also lead to neck sprains and stiffness. This includes using smartphones and other devices in one awkward position for long periods of time.
  • Injuries and accidents: A vehicle accident can cause whiplash, leading to a neck sprain and stiffness, and other injuries. If you have been in an accident of any kind, make sure you seek medical help even if you do not notice any symptoms. Injuries that lead to neck stiffness also include falls and bumps and if an object hits you in the head or any other part of the body.
  • Certain diseases and ailments: Disorders such as polymyalgia rheumatica, arthritis, meningitis, spondylosis, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer can cause neck stiffness as one of their many symptoms. Because diseases like arthritis can limit a person’s abilities and activities, getting yourself checked by a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis is important. Sudden onset of severe pain or pain lasting more than a few days is a cause for concern and should be evaluated by a doctor.

Less common causes

There are some reasons for neck stiffness that are much rarer.

While these are quite uncommon, it is important to know about them and be evaluated by a physician if you have concerning symptoms.

  • Aortic Dissection: A sudden, severe sharp, or tearing pain in the neck that then moves to the face or down into your chest, may be due to tearing of a large blood vessel in your body, called an aortic dissection. This condition may be life-threatening, and if you have these symptoms, you should be evaluated by a doctor right away.
  • Spinal disc abnormalities: While conditions such as cervical radiculopathy, herniated cervical disc, or degenerative disc disease are not so common, one of their symptoms can be stiffness in the neck and other joints. 

At-Home Remedies for Stiff Neck

There are many remedies and soothing treatments that you can use at home to help relieve the pain and discomfort from your stiff neck.

Apply heat or ice

An ice pack will help soothe any inflammation, while a hot pack will help stimulate blood flow.

Sometimes alternating hot and cold packs helps the most – see which method works for you.

Soaking your body in a warm bath can also help loosen a stiff neck and will help you relax.

Over-the-counter pain relief

Medications such as Tylenol or Advil can be taken on a short-term basis to help with pain management.

However, seek advice from a medical professional before taking any medication yourself, and if you require anything stronger, you may need a prescription from them.

Pain relievers like Tylenol and Advil should only be taken for a few days, and stronger pain medications, such as narcotic medications, should be used sparingly, if at all.

Gentle massage

Massage the affected area firmly using your fingertips or a cold or warm compress.

If you are thinking of getting a massage from a licensed therapist, do so only after speaking to a healthcare expert. 

Small movements

Gentle stretches, deep breathing exercises, and mindful meditation can help you relax, manage pain and soothe a stiff neck.

Avoid movements that involve the swift and sudden jerking of the head and neck. 

Prevention

Most neck pain, strains, and stiffness are due to poor posture as well as natural age-related wear and tear.

When exercising, lifting heavy objects, or taking part in other physical activities, be careful not to strain your muscles, and do some light stretches before and after you finish. 

Practice proper posture

Try not to hunch your back when sitting and standing for long periods of time.

Be mindful of your posture when sitting and while using electronic devices.

Many of us tend to lie down in uncomfortable positions when using smartphones, tablets, and laptops. 

Make sure that your computer monitor is always at eye level, and make use of ergonomic products and processes to avoid neck stiffness and body aches.

Take regular breaks throughout your workday and make movement part of your daily routine. 

Be mindful of sleep positions

Whether you prefer to sleep on your back, side or stomach, always make sure your spine is aligned, relaxed, and supported.

Use a thick pillow to keep your back straight, and keep a towel or pillow under your knees for added support.

Experiencing stiff neck? Chat with a provider through K Health
Get Started

When To Seek Medical Attention

If you undertake the at-home remedies and prevention techniques mentioned in this guide, your stiff neck and any pain in the area should improve in a few hours or days.

If you do not see significant signs of improvement after a week, seek help from a medical professional.

A healthcare expert will ask you some questions about your lifestyle and conduct a physical examination to determine why your stiff neck persists for so long.

While mild neck pain and stiffness can be treated at home, you must seek medical attention if any additional concerning symptoms accompany your stiff neck. 

These include:

  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Pains and aches in other parts of the body 
  • Lethargy or fatigue
  • Numbness and tingling sensations in any part of the body
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing
  • Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
  • Injuries and accidents that have caused a stiff neck
  • Severe and unbearable pain
  • Blurry vision

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? 

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you relieve a stiff neck?
You can relieve a stiff neck by applying a heat pack or an ice pack to the affected area. Using your hands and fingertips, gently massage the points on your neck that are specifically tender, using repeated, direct pressure. You can also take an over-the-counter painkiller if the pain is severe. Avoid rapid movements of the neck, and try not to keep your neck in the same position for long periods of time.
When is a stiff neck serious?
Most often, a stiff neck will relax and get better within a few hours. If you have slept in an uncomfortable position for a long time or sprained your neck, the stiffness and pain will subside with time and gentle homecare. If it does not get better after a few days, it could be due to an underlying issue that a medical expert can help you with.
How long does a stiff neck last?
A severe stiff neck can last a couple of weeks, while mild stiffness will get better within a few hours or days. If you are experiencing neck stiffness for more than a week and if other symptoms like headaches, nausea, and pains in the rest of your body accompany this, then seek help from a healthcare professional.
What causes stiff necks?
There are many common causes of a stiff neck, such as a muscle sprain or injury from an activity. It is also common to get a stiff neck after sleeping in an uncomfortable position for a long period of time and also due to poor posture. Carrying heavy items, swift movements, and other chronic ailments can also lead to a stiff neck.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.

Not feeling well? Check your symptoms and chat with a doctor in minutes

Get Started
K Health logo (used on certain page templates)