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Stiff Neck? What May Be Causing It

Stiff Neck? What May Be Causing It

Stiff Neck? What May Be Causing It

Waking up with a stiff neck can wreck an otherwise great day. Tight neck muscles can appear out of nowhere and last for several days or weeks at a time.
Discovering the cause of your stiff neck will help you find the best treatment to relieve your pain and increase mobility. Stiff neck pain can develop for many different reasons, from minor incidents to significant injuries. Depending on the cause of your discomfort, you can perform some remedies at home. If medical treatment is necessary, the Metropolitan Pain & Spine Institute will help you find the least invasive solution.
This guide will explain the common causes of a stiff neck and how to treat it so you can live your life to the fullest.

Common Causes of a Stiff Neck

The neck is a delicate system of ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones that work together to provide movement and support to your head. When one part is injured or strained, it can influence the function of your entire neck. The slightest trauma can have a significant impact on your comfort and range of motion.
Here are some common causes of a stiff neck:

1. Poor Posture

In the increasingly digital world, poor posture is becoming more common. Slouching in front of the computer or looking down at a smartphone for long periods can strain your neck. For every inch you tilt your neck forward, you are putting more weight on your neck muscles, leading to pain and stiffness. Poor posture from checking electronic devices has become so common that it’s earned the name “tech neck.”

2. Sleeping Position

The position of your head and body while you’re sleeping can cause neck pain and stiffness. Your back, neck and head should be aligned to prevent injuries. Resting on your stomach puts more strain on your neck than lying on your back or side.
The firmness of your mattress and pillow can also impact your body’s alignment. If you wake up with a stiff neck for no apparent reason, your sleeping environment may be the cause.

3. Sports Injuries

Participating in football, rugby, soccer, baseball, gymnastics and other rigorous activities can lead to various neck injuries. From stiff neck pain to life-threatening fractures, sports can cause minor or severe health conditions. In 2018, United States hospitals treated 3,194 sports-related neck fractures.
Stretching and wearing the appropriate protective gear can help reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries.

4. Car Accidents

Neck sprains are one of the most common injuries caused by car accidents. Over 800,000 car accidents cause neck injuries in the U.S. every year. Whiplash from a sudden impact jerks your head back and forth, which can damage the delicate tissues in your neck. High-impact collisions can lead to even more severe injuries, including fractures.

5. Excessive Stress

Stress is more than just a feeling — too much can harm your mental and physical health. Excessive stress and anxiety can cause your muscles to tighten in your neck and other areas of your body. Your body will remain tense until you’re able to relieve the stress. Prolonged muscle tension can cause neck pain and other chronic health conditions.

6. Vigorous Exercise

In moderation, exercise is an excellent way to strengthen your muscles and stay healthy. However, lifting heavy weights and performing hard labor without stretching can cause injuries. Increasing the duration or intensity of your workout can also lead to sore neck muscles. Pushing your body too hard at work or the gym can damage the muscle tissues in your neck and other areas of the body.

7. Long Drives

Going for a long drive can lead to neck pain and stiffness. Sitting in the car for hours encourages people to slouch and practice general poor posture. If you have blurred eyesight, you’re more likely to strain your eyes and crane your neck. Traffic and stressful driving conditions can also create excess tension in your neck muscles.
Adding an extra cushion to keep your body aligned and taking frequent breaks can help prevent driving-related neck stiffness.

Spinal Conditions That Can Contribute to Neck Stiffness

Sometimes, neck pain is a sign of more serious underlying health conditions that require medical attention. The following spinal conditions can cause neck stiffness:

1. Arthritis

Osteoarthritis causes the protective cartilage that cushions the joints to deteriorate, causing discomfort and limited mobility. It’s the most common form of arthritis, often weakening the spine, hands, hips and knees. Neck stiffness is a sign of osteoarthritis of the spine. Other symptoms include joint pain during or after physical activity, tenderness near the affected area, decreased flexibility, swelling around the joint and popping or cracking noises during movement.

2. Herniated Disc

Between the vertebrae that form the spine are round cushions called discs. These discs act as a buffer so you can comfortably bend and move. The discs can tear or leak as you age or gain weight, causing painful side effects. Overuse and injuries can also cause disc damage.
A slipped, ruptured, bulging or herniated disc often occurs in the lower back or neck area. Herniated disc symptoms include neck stiffness, back pain, muscle weakness and numbness in your legs or feet.

3. Facet Joint Syndrome

Similar to arthritis, facet joint syndrome results from joint deterioration in the spine. The facets consist of cartilage that cushions the spinal bones as they move. As they break down, they trigger pain signals in the surrounding nerves, causing discomfort in the neck and back area.
Facet joint syndrome causes irritation and swelling that leads to stiffness and muscle spasms. Other signs include a dull ache in the neck, shoulders, back and buttocks area. Spinal injuries, damaged discs, poor posture, obesity and overuse can contribute to facet joint syndrome.

4. Spinal Stenosis

Spinal injuries, herniated discs, and osteoarthritis can narrow the space inside the spine, causing spinal stenosis. People with spinal stenosis may not experience symptoms for many years. Signs of spinal stenosis appear gradually and increase over time.
You may experience pain in your neck and back, cramping or stiffness during physical activity and numbness in your limbs and extremities. Younger people may experience spinal stenosis due to genetic conditions or injuries, but it’s more common in people over 50.

Is Neck Stiffness Serious?

While minor injuries and health conditions often cause neck stiffness, it can also be a symptom of life-threatening illness. For example, meningitis is a medical condition that causes swelling of the fluid and membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord.
Anyone can get meningitis, including newborn babies, and some cases are highly contagious. Symptoms include neck stiffness, headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and seizures. Neck stiffness paired with flu-like symptoms indicates an urgent medical emergency.
The risk level depends on the type of meningitis that you have. Viral meningitis is most common in the U.S., but bacterial, fungal and parasitic meningitis are also possible. Some cases will improve on their own, while others require immediate medical treatment. Bacterial meningitis can be fatal within days if left untreated.
Early antibiotic treatment can prevent permanent brain damage and death. If you’re experiencing symptoms of meningitis, seek medical care immediately. Vaccinations can significantly reduce your risk of contracting bacterial meningitis.

How to Avoid Neck Stiffness

Dealing with a stiff neck can slow you down and make it challenging to get things done. The following strategies will help you prevent neck stiffness before it happens.

1. Practicing Correct Posture

Making an effort to maintain good posture can help prevent unnecessary strain on your neck. The key to practicing correct posture is keeping your spine aligned from your neck to your lower back.
The following tips will help you improve your standing posture:

  1. Stand up straight with a level head.
  2. Keep your chest out and shoulders back.
  3. Engage your stomach and tuck in your buttocks.
  4. Relax your arms at your sides.
  5. Use the balls of your feet to support your weight.
  6. Stand so your feet are even with your shoulders.

You can practice these tips to improve your sitting posture:

  • Rest your feet on the floor or footrest.
  • Tuck your elbows close to your body.
  • Keep your shoulders relaxed.
  • Find a padded chair that supports your lower back and buttocks.
  • Add a back support or seat cushion if necessary.
  • Sit so your hips and thighs are level with the floor.
  • Avoid crossing your legs.
  • Take frequent breaks to walk around and stretch your muscles.

2. Changing Your Sleeping Position

If you’re constantly waking up with a stiff neck, try changing your sleeping position. Sleeping on your back or spine is best for your spine. Use a pillow to prop up your head so your neck is even with your back. The pillow should be firm enough to support your head and soft enough to cushion your neck.
Switching sleeping positions may seem uncomfortable at first, but your body will get used to it with practice. Keeping your spine aligned at night will help you wake up feeling rested and pain-free.

3. Adjusting Your Workspace

If you spend most of the workweek sitting at your desk, it’s crucial to create a comfortable space that supports your health and comfort.
Starting with your equipment, choose a comfortable office chair that supports your lower back. Position your computer monitor at eye level so it’s easy to see without crouching or straining your neck. You can use a platform or stack of books to elevate your screen. Your keyboard should be even with your elbows so your arms are resting comfortably on the table.
Sit back in your chair and practice correct posture. It’s best to get up and move your body at least once per hour. An adjustable standing desk will make it easier to stretch your legs throughout the day.

4. Stretching Your Body Regularly

Stretching your muscles every day keeps them loose and flexible to prevent neck pain and stiffness. Light exercises can help relax a stiff neck and prevent reoccurring symptoms. Stretching your shoulders, chest and upper back will also support a healthy posture and pain-free neck.
You can stretch your neck and upper body throughout the day during your regular schedule. It only takes a few moments while you’re stopped at a red light or watching television to exercise your neck muscles.

How to Relieve a Stiff Neck at Home

To fix mild pain and immobility, here’s what to do for stiff necks at home:

1. Rest

Whether your neck pain is caused by a minor injury, overuse or poor posture, rest will give your muscles and tissues time to recover. Take it easy and avoid intense physical activity for a few days. Gently stretch your neck if you can to keep your muscles loose.
After a few days, it’s best to start easing back into your regular schedule to keep your body strong and limber. Follow your doctor’s recommendations for resting severe injuries.

2. Hot and Cold Therapy

Hot and cold therapy is a safe and easy way to treat any injury from home. Applying ice will reduce the swelling while the heat loosens the muscle to help your stiff neck recover.
Whether you’re applying ice or heat first, leave it on for 15-20 minutes and wait at least 40 minutes before switching or reapplying. Always wrap the ice in a towel to prevent damage to your skin. You can apply heat by taking a hot shower, using a heating pad or applying a warm compress.

3. Over-the-Counter Medication

If you’re experiencing soreness and discomfort, nonprescription pain relievers can provide strained neck relief. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen sodium can reduce your pain so you can rest while your neck muscles heal. If you still experience intense discomfort after trying these medications, medical attention may be necessary. Always follow your doctor’s recommendations for over-the-counter pain relievers.

How Is Neck Stiffness Treated?

The cause of your stiff neck pain will determine the best treatment plan. If you’re unsure what’s causing your discomfort, your doctor will run a series of tests to find a diagnosis. Some conditions can be treated at home, while others will require medical intervention or even surgery. Your doctor will explain your options and recommend the best solution for your neck stiffness.
Here are some potential stiff neck treatments your doctor may suggest:

  • Chiropractic care
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Pain medication
  • Antibiotics
  • Anti-inflammatory injections
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery

When to See a Doctor for Neck Stiffness

You can typically treat minor cases of neck stiffness at home with rest and self-care. However, if your symptoms worsen or last for several weeks, you should schedule an appointment to receive medical attention. If the pain increases or you experience numbness in your arms and legs, this could be a sign of a chronic spinal condition. Medical attention is necessary to treat your disease and ease your discomfort.

It’s crucial to seek emergency medical care if you experience neck pain or stiffness that’s associated with:

  • Meningitis symptoms: If you’re experiencing a stiff neck with flu-like symptoms like fever, fatigue, headache and nausea, you should immediately seek medical attention. These symptoms could indicate a life-threatening case of bacterial meningitis.
  • Severe injury: A traumatic fall or car accident could cause permanent damage to your brain and spinal cord. If a severe injury caused your neck stiffness, you should visit a doctor immediately for treatment.
  • Muscles weakness: If you’re having trouble walking or moving your arms and legs, you should see a doctor right away. Muscle weakness could be a sign of a serious medical condition like stroke or heart attack.

Visit the Metropolitan Pain & Spine Institute

At the Metropolitan Pain & Spine Institute, we understand the toll that neck stiffness can have on your health, comfort and happiness. We’ll find the cause of your stiff neck and create an individualized care path to reduce your pain and improve your mobility. Our trusted physicians offer the least invasive treatments and procedures so you can recover as quickly as possible. We provide stiff neck relief and treatment for underlying conditions to prevent reoccurring symptoms.

Schedule an appointment to relieve your pain and revive your life today!

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