The neck serves as a connection between your head and the rest of your body and contains several important nerves and blood vessels. Also, your neck muscles are part of a complex musculoskeletal system that connects the base of your skull to your torso. Muscles contain fibers that contract, allowing you to perform many different movements. Your neck muscles help you do everything from chewing and swallowing to nodding your head.
Your neck contains numerous vital structures, including the following:
- Cervical spinal cord – The cervical portion of your spinal cord is located in your neck. Your spinal cord sends messages through nerves from your brain to your body, and from your body back to your brain. The spinal cord stretches all the way down the length of your back.
- Vertebrae – The vertebrae are bones that encase and protect your spinal cord.
- Vertebral disks – Intervertebral disks are located between each vertebra and help to absorb shock and allow your spine more flexibility.
- Ligaments – Ligaments in your neck help stabilize your vertebrae and help hold them in place.
- Nerves – A network of nerves in your neck sends signals to your brain and body.
- Blood vessels – Many of your body’s important arteries and veins are located in your neck, including your carotid arteries and jugular veins. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body, and veins carry blood back to your heart and lungs.
A stiff neck is usually characterized by soreness and difficulty moving the neck, especially when trying to turn your head to the side. It may also be accompanied by neck pain, headache (or migraines), shoulder pain, and / or arm pain. In more severe cases, if a patient with a stiff neck tries to look sideways or over the shoulder, he or she may need to turn the entire body instead of the stiff neck. Most people are familiar with the pain and inconvenience of a stiff neck, whether it appeared upon waking up one morning or perhaps developed later in the day after some strenuous activity, such as moving furniture. In most cases of a stiff neck, pain and stiffness go away naturally within a week. However, how an individual manages and cares for the stiff neck symptoms can affect pain levels, recovery time, and the likelihood of whether it will re-occur.
Causes & Symptoms
One of the most common causes of a stiff neck is a muscle strain or soft tissue sprain located in the neck. Additionally, the levator scapulae muscle is highly susceptible to injury. Located at the back and side of the neck, the levator scapulae muscle connects the neck’s cervical spine with the shoulder. This muscle is controlled by the third and fourth cervical nerves. The levator scapulae muscle may be strained throughout the course of many common, everyday activities, such as:
- Impact – Falling or sudden impact that pushes the head to the side, such as sports injuries.
- Improper rest – Sleeping with the neck in an awkward position.
- Added stress – Experiencing excessive stress or anxiety, which can lead to tension in the neck.
- Poor posture – while viewing the computer monitor or looking downward for prolonged periods (also known as ‘text neck’).
- Turning your head repeatedly – Turning your head side to side repeatedly during an activity, such as swimming.
The cause of a stiff neck may be obvious if symptoms begin right away, such as falling during a sports activity. If a stiff neck seems to develop out of nowhere, however, it could be difficult to pinpoint the right cause.
A stiff neck can vary in intensity, ranging anywhere from a sudden feeling of discomfort to extremely painful, sharp, and limiting. Usually, attempting to turn your stiff neck to a particular side or direction will eventually result in intense pain that the motion is needed to be stopped. In addition, the amount of reduction in neck movement can affect your activity levels. For instance, if your head cannot be significantly turned in one direction without excruciating pain, driving will most likely need to be avoided until your symptoms have subsided.
Who gets Stiff Neck?
Several risk factors are associated with neck stiffness:
- Age – Anyone can experience neck stiffness; however, babies are known to have much weaker muscles when they are newborn. If you pull a baby up gently by their hands into a sitting position, their head will flop back because their neck muscles cannot support it.
- Smoking – Smoking may increase the risk of neck pain due to damaging the cervical discs in your neck.
- Sex – Neck stiffness, neck pain, and muscle spasms can decrease your interest in sexual activity. Any activity that causes you to hold your head too far back and bent to the side or bent too far forward puts stress on the muscles, ligaments, and joints of your neck and can create neck pain.
- Labour-intensive occupation – Several occupations require you to maneuver your neck in order to operate certain things. Some labour occupations include carpenters, construction workers, and even office workers.
How Does it Affect You? How Serious is it?
Oftentimes, neck stiffness is a reaction to an underlying disorder of the cervical spine, which helps support and moves the neck in addition to protecting the spinal cord. Some complications that can cause neck muscles to spasm or tighten include:
- Cervical herniated disc – The protective outer portion of a disc in the cervical spine breaks down, and the inner portion leaks out, causing compression and inflammation in nearby tissues.
- Osteoarthritis – Arthritic breakdown of the cervical facet joints between the vertebral bones often happen along with other degenerative condition, such as spinal stenosis.
- Degenerative disc disease – As discs lose hydration and height over time, pressure increases on nearby joints, nerves, and soft tissues, such as ligaments and muscles. This can result in neck pain and stiffness.
Other serious complications that are associated with severe neck stiffness include:
- Infection – While meningitis is the most common infection that could lead to a stiff neck, other infections could also result in a painful stiff neck.
- Cervical dystonia – This neurological disorder can cause neck muscles to spasm uncontrollably. The head can be turned or stuck in various positions outside of regular alignment.
- Tumor – A brain tumor, especially if it is located in the cerebellum, can cause a stiff neck. A tumor in the cervical spine, such as from cancer, could also cause the neck to become sore and / or stiff.
- Whiplash – Many severe neck injuries are caused by whiplash. People often experience whiplash during car accidents that cause the head to suddenly jerk forwards and backwards.
Recommended Treatment & Rehabilitation
It is recommended to undergo a diagnosis if your neck stiffness has not subsided due to symptoms linked to this condition. Getting the most accurate medical diagnosis for the cause of a stiff neck can help set up a more effective treatment plan.
Therefore, a thorough medical history is often the first step in diagnosing the specific cause of neck pain. Your doctor will begin by asking questions, such as when did the pain began to take effect, has it re-occurred, what type of work do you do, what activities do you perform on a regular basis, and if there are additional symptoms in addition to your neck stiffness. Several other topics may be reviewed, such as posture, sleep habits, and recent or old injuries.
After a medical history, your doctor will perform a physical examination that includes:
- Observation – He or she will examine your posture, particularly the neck and shoulders, and inspect the neck for any lesions or abnormalities.
- Palpation – Your doctor will feel along with the neck’s soft tissue for signs of muscle spasms, tightness, or tenderness.
- Sensation – Your doctor will check for unusual sensations, such as tingling that goes into the shoulders, arms, or fingers.
Other various imaging technologies (such as an X-ray, CT scan, and MRI) are available to give a better view of what might be causing a stiff neck.
After a diagnosis has been done, a physiotherapist will be able to work with you to design a specific treatment program that will speed your recovery, including exercises and treatments that you can perform at home. The time it takes to heal your stiff neck may vary, but an individualized physiotherapy program can be effective and efficient and help heal neck pain in a matter of weeks. Therefore, your physiotherapist will work with you to:
- Reduce pain and other symptoms – Your physiotherapist will help you understand how to avoid or modify the activities that caused the injury, so healing may begin. He or she may use different types of treatments and technologies to control and reduce your pain and symptoms. These may include gentle hands-on techniques, specific neck movements, and the use of equipment, such as electrical stimulation or traction.
- Improve your posture – If your physiotherapist suspects that poor posture has contributed to your neck stiffness, he or she will teach your how to improve your posture so recovery can occur.
- Improve your motion – Your physiotherapist will choose specific activities and treatments to help restore regular movement in any stiff joints. These might include passive motion that your physiotherapist performs for you to move your spine or active exercises and stretches that you do yourself.
- Improve your flexibility – Your physiotherapist will determine if any of the involved muscles are tight and teach you gentle stretching exercises that you can perform at home.
- Improve your strength – If your physiotherapist finds any weak or injured muscles, he or she will choose and teach you the correct exercises to gently restore your strength and agility. For neck pain, core strengthening or stabilization is commonly used to restore the strength and coordination of muscles around your cervical spine.
- Improve your endurance – Restoring your endurance is important for people with neck pain. Your physiotherapist will design a specific program of activities to help you regain the muscle endurance you had before the neck pain started.
Below are two main exercises that you can perform to increase strength and flexibility in the neck due to stiffness:
Begin by standing straight while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Next, put your index finger on your chin and slightly tuck your chin. Gently push your Ching back with your finger until you feel a slight, painless stretch along the back of your neck. Hold the position for up to 20 seconds, then repeat 2-3 times a day.
Start with your head straight, eyes gazing forward. Take note of any tension in the neck, shoulders, or upper back. Slowly turn your head to the left, then hold for a few seconds and roll your head back so you stare at the ceiling. Afterward, gently roll your head to the right and roll your head forward so that your chin faces down. Repeat this method 4-5 times a day.
Alternative & Homeopathic Treatment
You can do several things on your own to begin treating a stiff neck homeopathically – some self-care remedies include:
- Rest – Resting for one or two days gives injured tissues a chance to begin to heal, which in turn will help relieve stiffness and possible muscle spasm.
- Cold and heat therapy – Ice packs can help relieve most types of neck stiffness by reducing inflammation. Applying ice during the first 24 hours of a flare-up normally has great benefits in terms of reducing inflammation. Additionally, applying heat to the neck can spur blood flow, which fosters a better healing environment.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – NSAIDs, which flawlessly work by reducing inflammation, are usually the first line of treatment for neck stiffness and soreness. Common types of NSAIDs are ibuprofen and naproxen.
- Massage – A massage therapist may help provide relief from tense, sore muscles. Some studies have shown that having a professional neck massage can help relieve stress, which may indirectly help with stiffness in the neck.