A stiff neck can occur for myriad reasons, be they acute or chronic. What is causing the condition may not be initially apparent, requiring a process of elimination and investigation by the patient and their doctor. Structural dysfunctions such as spinal stenosis, ankylosis spondylitis, and other degenerative spinal conditions can cause a stiff neck with pain. Other causes are discussed below.
Stiff Neck from Muscle Cramps and Strains
As most mothers warn their children, sitting in a cold draught, or going out in winter without your scarf, can lead to a stiff neck. This is because the cold air can cause the neck muscles to tense, leading to soreness and stiffness if exposed to the cold for a long time. Sleeping in a draught has a similar effect.
Driving is another culprit when it comes to stiffness of the neck as it often involves keeping the head in a fixed, and not necessarily natural, position for long periods of time. Ensuring a good position for the head rest in the car and actually using it for support can make a big difference on all those lengthy commutes into work and back. It is also important to have a properly fitted headrest to avoid serious problems from whiplash injuries.
Touch-typing, if it constitutes a major part of the work day, can also lead to a stiff neck . This is due to the fact that most people are turning their head slightly to the side to see the information they are inputting, whilst holding the rest of their body forward towards the screen. Having the information comfortably within the same visual frame as the screen will help reduce this effect.
Serious Conditions Associated with a Stiff Neck
It is important when suffering from a stiff neck to understand its cause and rule out any serious diseases, such as meningitis, which can cause this symptom. Meningitis is an infection of the meninges; the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Delays in treatment can lead to serious complications, such as problems with blood flow leading to amputations, inflammation of the brain, and resulting seizures. Prompt action saves lives in this case.
If a fever is present and a rash that does not disappear under glass, call the doctor immediately. A stiff neck with no apparent cause is cause for concern in itself, and prompt action is imperative if a child with a stiff neck cannot touch their chin to their chest. Other infections in the mouth, face, or head can cause gland and lymph node enlargement, leading to neck stiffness and pain. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a condition where there is dysfunction of the neurovascular system in the neck; this may cause neck stiffness, acute and chronic pain, in the shoulders and arms.
Stiff Neck from Accident
If the person suffering from a stiff neck has recently suffered an accident, such as a car collision, fall from a bike or horse, or a blow to the head during contact sports, it is important to rule out any potential fractures or torn connective tissue in the neck. Injuries such as whiplash sometimes take a few days to present all their symptoms, leading to misdiagnosis, or a casual attitude to neck stiffness. If acute pain and stiffness occurs it is wise to seek medical opinion, just in case the immediate inflammation of the injury obscured a muscle break or bone fracture.
The Levator Scapula
The levator scapula muscle is the muscle most often connected with neck stiffness and neck and shoulder pain. Sometimes this stiffness can lead to head and neck pain. Any muscle which is put under continued pressure can suffer fatigue, particularly if blood flow, or nerve innervation are compromised in some way. Sleeping awkwardly, having long cell-phone conversations, or carrying heavy weights over a long period can put undue stress on the levator scapula, causing it to cramp up, and lead to stiffness in the neck.
Stiff Neck from Tension and Stress
A normal stress response involves the body tensing its muscles, ready for action. If stress continues and has no physical release then these muscles can continue to be contracted, leading to a build-up of lactic acid, and muscle soreness and stiffness. Psychological stress elicits a similar physical response, which is why many people suffer tension headaches and neck pain. A lack of magnesium in the body, a mineral necessary for muscles to relax after contraction, is also associated with stress and anxiety, making it important to ensure an adequate dietary (or supplementary) supply.
Stiff Neck Treatment
If a stiff neck is due to cold exposure or tension then applying warmth to the area is likely to help. This can be in the form of a hot shower, a neck massage, a heat pack, or a warm scarf. The use of relaxing essential oils can amplify the effect; rosemary and lavender for massaging in (in a base/carrier oil) or using in the bath or shower are particularly good at restoring circulation and relaxing the muscles.
If the cause of the stiff neck is an infection then antibiotic treatment may be advised. In most cases the body can handle the infection without outside assistance. Alternative immune-boosting supplements may help to shorten the infection and alleviate the symptoms. Serious infections such as meningitis clearly require urgent treatment.
If the problem is due to poor posture, whether when sitting, standing, or engaging in activities such as running or swimming, then correcting this is the only way to really solve the issue. Taking NSAIDs to ignore the pain an discomfort are not long-term strategy, as there are side-effects associated with these medications. Consulting a chiropractor, osteopath, Alexander Technique practitioner, or an ergonomist can relieve neck pain and stiffness long term.
Knowing the cause of the problem is half the cure when it comes to this type of neck pain. Often the stiff neck muscles are the cause of many other bodily ailments, such as headaches, back pain, tiredness and fatigue. Preventing and treating a stiff neck may have benefits for a much larger area than just the neck.