When we experience any new pain or discomfort, it’s natural to seek relief and hope it comes as quickly as possible. This can be true when you wake up with a stiff neck as well- but how long does the stiffness usually last? Of course, this answer varies depending on the root cause of your symptoms and the type of neck pain treatment you seek. Understanding these factors can help you take steps to prevent a stiff neck from occurring in the first place and can help with managing symptoms if it does.
What Does It Mean to Have a Stiff Neck?
A stiff neck is usually characterized by soreness and difficulty in moving the neck, particularly when you try to turn your head to either side. However, it is also common for this to be accompanied by a headache, other neck pain, shoulder pain, and/or arm pain. A person suffering from a stiff neck may need to turn their entire body in order to look sideways or over their shoulder in a way that would have been easy before.
Most people have had a stiff neck at some point, and the pain often resolves on its own. However, this is not always the case. The severity of the restriction can vary, as can the pain level. Eventually, it may lead to a complete inability to make certain movements, which ultimately restricts a person’s activities.
Common Causes of a Stiff Neck
Most cases of a stiff neck can be related to a strain in the neck muscles or soft tissue sprain. More specifically, the levator scapulae muscle is located at the back of the neck and on the sides, connecting the cervical spine to the shoulder. This muscle is controlled by C3 and C4, the third and fourth cervical nerves, and is very susceptible to injury. A range of common and otherwise safe activities can cause strain in the levator scapulae muscle, including:
- Sleeping with the neck in an awkward position
- Falling or another sudden impact that pushes the head to the side, like a sports injury
- Turning the head side to side repeatedly during an activity like swimming
- Slouching and using poor posture while working at the computer monitor or using a mobile device for an extended period of time, also known as “text neck”
- Experiencing excessive anxiety or stress that causes tension in the neck
- Holding the neck in an unusual position for a long time, like cradling a phone between the neck and the shoulder
In some cases, the neck will begin to show signs of stiffness right away, making it easy to tie an event like a fall to the issue. When the stiffness seems to appear out of nowhere, it may be more difficult to find the cause.
While it is less common, a stiff neck can also be a reaction to an underlying disorder of the cervical spine. The cervical spine helps to support and move the neck along with protecting the spinal cord, and when it is compromised, it can cause the neck muscles to painfully spasm or tighten. Examples of these conditions include:
- Cervical herniated disc. This is when the protective outer portion of a disc in the cervical spine is broken down, allowing the inner portion to leak out, compressing or inflaming nearby tissues.
- Cervical degenerative disc disease. When discs lose hydration and height over time, pressure can increase on nearby joints, nerves, and soft tissues, including ligaments and muscles. This process can cause pain in the neck as well as stiffness.
- Cervical osteoarthritis. An arthritic breakdown of the facet joints between vertebral bones, which often occurs alongside other degenerative conditions like spinal stenosis. This can also be accompanied by anatomical changes like bone spurs.
In even rarer cases, tumors or infections may be responsible for neck stiffness. While the cause is usually much less worrisome, it is important to have any neck pain examined to rule out these scenarios.
When to Seek Care
If you wake up with a stiff neck or notice one coming on, usually a couple of days of taking it easy is enough to relieve the issue once the tissues heal. If the pain is enough to interfere with your day, you can add in over-the-counter pain medication and alternating ice and heat therapy for pain management.
Contrary to popular belief, using a collar or other means to immobilize a stiff neck is actually not helpful in these scenarios. It may be beneficial to reduce activity in the first few days of a stiff neck to avoid pain, but regular movement can help the tissue heal faster, whereas immobilizing the neck can cause it to become stiffer. Low impact exercise, even something like walking that does not involve the neck, can help the body to circulate oxygen and promote healing.
If it has been a week and your neck hasn’t shown an improvement, it is a good idea to have it checked by a professional. There are also some red flags that should lead you to seek medical care quickly, including:
- Fever, which can indicate an infection
- Headache, especially if it is different from previous headaches in duration, intensity, or symptoms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Fatigue and unexplained drowsiness
- A change in mental state, like confusion or mood swings
- Coordination issues such as dizziness or trouble walking
- Weight loss that is unrelated to other changes
These symptoms do not necessarily mean that there is a medical emergency, but it is important to rule out any serious issues. Meningitis is a serious condition that can result in a stiff neck, and left untreated, it may result in poor outcomes like hearing loss or brain damage.
Treatment for a Stiff Neck
If your pain has not let up, the first thing a doctor will want to do is understand your condition and make a proper diagnosis. They will likely begin by taking your medical history and talking through your symptoms, habits, and any relevant information that can help them understand what is contributing to your neck problems. A physical exam may also be performed, including palpating your neck to feel for muscle spasms and asking you to perform certain movements to assess the range of motion. Often this is enough information to tell a provider what is going on and whether it is more serious than a normal stiff neck. In cases where they suspect other causes, you may be asked to undergo further testing to have diagnostic imaging performed.
The treatment plan you are prescribed will likely depend on the severity of your symptoms and if you are experiencing additional symptoms. For a simple stiff neck, they may recommend a continuation of home care remedies like ice and heat therapy and rest.
Other treatments may include:
- Massage to loosen tight muscles
- Acupuncture or dry needling to address tissues that are not functioning properly
- Physical therapy to help strengthen muscles in the neck, regain range of motion, and improve flexibility. This will usually include a series of exercises that not only address current pain and stiffness but seek to prevent future episodes.
- Chiropractic adjustments to help the cervical spine stay aligned and reduce spinal issues that contribute to symptoms.
Some combination of these may be recommended. If you continue to worsen or do not improve, a provider may reassess your condition and recommend more invasive methods of treatment.
Preventing a Stiff Neck
It is often possible to prevent a stiff neck from occurring or reoccurring by making small adjustments in daily habits and lifestyle.
For anyone who works at a desk all day or spends a lot of time on the computer, the poor posture associated with this is a major factor in many stiff necks. Slouching over the device or tilting the neck down for hours on end puts a strain on the muscles and causes both short-term and long-term problems. Ways to implement an ergonomic environment may include:
- Adjusting your chair so that your feet are flat on the floor and your knees remain a bit lower than your hips
- Sitting with your back strain and your arms level to the desk
- Ensuring computer screens and all other devices are eye level
- Using an ergonomic keyboard and mouse
- Standing up to stretch and move on an hourly basis
Limit Use of Cellphones
It is not uncommon to spend hours on end looking at our smartphones, but the position we normally use is bad for the neck. In fact, it is so commonly a cause of neck pain that chiropractors often refer to it as text neck. The best way to prevent this is to limit the use of smartphones and mobile devices, but when you do have to use one, be sure to:
- Hold your phone at eye level
- Avoid holding your phone between your shoulder and your ear
- Use earbuds or headphones
- Take frequent breaks
- Stretch after us to relax the muscles
Avoid Driving for a Long Period
Just like sitting at a desk all day, sitting in a car for a long period of time can have an impact on your neck. If there is a scenario where you need to drive for a long time, try to:
- Take breaks frequently to stand up and stretch
- Set an alarm to remind you to check your posture while driving
- Adjust your seat to a position that offers the most support and puts you in a good posture
- Never text and drive. In addition to being dangerous and illegal, looking up and down between your phone and the road can damage your neck.
No matter what activity you are doing, periodically stopping to stretch is always helpful in protecting the neck. Some simple stretches you can do anywhere include:
- Rolling your shoulders back and forth
- Squeezing your shoulder blades together several times
- Slowly moving your ear to your shoulder on each side
- Slowly turning your head from side to side
Change Sleep Positions
Waking up with a stiff neck is one of the most common ways to discover the issue, often because of your sleep position. Sleeping on your stomach is generally considered the least beneficial sleep position, as it puts a lot of strain on your neck by forcing it to one side for a long period.
Sleeping on your back offers the most neutral position for your spine and the least chance of developing a stiff neck. Sleeping on your side can also be good, especially if you place a pillow between your legs to further align the spine at night.
Quitting smoking will have a wide range of health benefits, including less risk of a stiff neck due to the poor circulation of oxygen in smokers. Maintaining a balanced diet and exercising regularly can also help the muscles and tissues function well and prevent injury.
Stiff Neck After a Car Accident
While stiff necks are very common and usually a sign of only mild strain on the muscles, there are some scenarios where they may be a sign of more serious issues. One such instance is if you have recently been involved in a car accident, even a very minor fender bender.
Stiffness in the neck is a symptom of two very common car accident injuries: whiplash and concussions. When these are the cause of neck stiffness, more rigorous medical care may be needed from the start. Not only can these injuries have more negative impacts on the body, but it is important to rule out more serious injuries that may result from an accident. In addition, insurance companies will require proof that your condition is related to the accident, which is easier to get the closer you are to the event.
At AICA Marietta, we specialize in car accident injuries, but our team of experts is equipped to handle any stiff neck and neck pain you present. Contact our office today for a full evaluation with our specialists.