A stiff neck (and shoulders) is an annoying complaint. A stiff neck is characterized by stiffness, pain, and difficulty moving the neck, especially when you try to turn your head to the left or right. A stiff neck can also be accompanied by other symptoms, such as headache, neck pain, shoulder pain and/or arm pain, and can significantly interfere with your daily activities. A stiff neck can occur after a night’s sleep, due to an incorrect sleeping position or a pillow that is not sufficiently supportive. But an incorrect working posture or doing certain work for a long time (painting a ceiling) can also cause a stiff neck, as can a collision. Working for a long time behind a computer or frequently using a smartphone is also killing for your neck. Looking hunched over at your screen for hours is a common cause of neck pain and stiffness. How to fix a stiff neck depends on the cause.
- A stiff neck and shoulders
- Causes of a stiff neck
- Stiff neck and headache due to muscle tension
- Tension headache
- Stiff neck due to overload
- Muscle strain or injury
- Stiff neck due to car accident
- Neck pain and stiff neck
- Dizziness or blurred vision
- Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping
- Disorders of the cervical spine
- Radiculopathy (pinched nerve)
- Possible conditions
- Meningitis or meningitis
- Fix and treat stiff neck
- Treating muscle tension
- Heat against neck stiffness
- Stiff neck: exercises
- Neck exercises
- Different exercises
Stiff neck / Source: InesBazdar/Shutterstock.com
A stiff neck and shoulders
A stiff neck can occur due to conditions and diseases of any structure in the neck, including the seven cervical vertebrae, which together are called the cervical spine. The cervical vertebrae form a natural, forward curve and are connected by intervertebral discs. These vertebrae surround the spinal cord and spinal canal, through which nerves pass. Furthermore, neck muscles, arteries, veins, lymph nodes, thyroid, parathyroid gland, esophagus, larynx and trachea are present in the neck and throat.
A stiff neck can be accompanied by other symptoms and complaints, such as:
- neck pain
- pain in the shoulder(s)
- stiffness in the shoulder
- pain in one arm
- blurred vision
- drowsiness or extreme tiredness
- difficulty sleeping and lack of sleep
- muscle tension
Causes of a stiff neck
A stiff neck is usually caused by a wrong movement or draft. It can also be caused by damage to the bones, nerves and/or muscles of the neck. A stiff neck is mainly caused by an injury to tendons or ligaments, painful neck muscles, wear and tear of the cervical vertebrae or irritation of the periosteum. However, a stiff neck is also a symptom of meningitis, along with headache and fever. A stiff neck can also be caused by continuous contractions or spasms of the neck muscles.
Tension headache / Source: Istock.com/JackF
Stiff neck and headache due to muscle tension
With tension headaches, the location of the pain varies from person to person. With this form of headache, the neck and shoulders are often stiff and painful. There are various triggering factors, including stress, exertion, fatigue, eye strain, posture and movement errors, hormonal fluctuations and diet. In the case of a stiff neck, the cause must often be sought in posture and movement errors. Because if you use your shoulders, neck and head incorrectly, your muscles can become overloaded. They are then continuously over-tightened, which causes complaints. It may be related to an incorrect working posture, such as sitting slumped with a back that is too hollow or shoulders that are too hunched. But your mattress and pillow can also lead to incorrect posture. Working on your smartphone or tablet in a bent-over position for a long time can also cause neck problems. More and more children are complaining about this.
Stiff neck due to overload
Overload can cause the neck muscles to become acidic. The lactic acid is normally removed as a waste product, but with a stiff neck the lactic acid will accumulate in the muscle tissue. This causes neck complaints that can feel like severe muscle pain. This limits the mobility of the neck; turning the head is difficult and you experience pain if you try. By resting, the stiff neck will disappear within a few days.
Muscle strain or injury
By far the most common cause of a stiff neck is a pulled muscle or injury. The neck muscles may become stiff in response to pain. A muscle in the neck or neck may be pulled or torn. This can be due to a sudden, unexpected movement, or due to overload. It mainly occurs in people who exercise intensively. The levator scapulae in particular is susceptible to injury. This muscle allows you to pull the shoulder blade up towards your neck. At the back and side of the neck, this scapula muscle connects the cervical spine to the shoulder. You can suffer from this by sleeping in the wrong position, a sports injury and frequently turning your head from left to right (for example when swimming). Excessive stress, which can lead to tension in the neck, is another trigger. An incorrect body position, where the head is bent backwards for a long time, can also be the cause. For example, when painting a ceiling.
Stiff neck due to car accident / Source: Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock.com
Stiff neck due to car accident
Whiplash is one of the most common injuries caused by a car accident, following a rear-end collision. Whiplash is a neck injury in which the head has made a sudden movement forward, backward or sideways. Because the head moves differently compared to the torso, your nerves and muscles in the neck become overloaded. There are a number of symptoms by which you can recognize whiplash.
Neck pain and stiff neck
After the initial impact of the car accident, your body releases endorphins that increase your heart rate and help you cope with the stress of assessing the damage to your car, exchanging insurance information, filling out a claim form and deciding what you have to do next. Once the initial stress of the situation has dissipated, neck pain or a stiff neck is the most common early warning sign that you have whiplash. Many people also feel stiffness or pain in their shoulders or upper back.
Most whiplash headaches start at the base of the skull and radiate toward the back of the head or toward the ears. A whiplash headache can manifest itself in either a sharp pain or a dull headache.
Blurred vision / Source: Martin Sulman
Dizziness or blurred vision
Another common warning sign of whiplash is dizziness caused by nerve damage to the neck. Many victims of dizziness after a car accident report that it feels like the room is spinning. This dizziness can last from a few minutes to several days if left untreated.
Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
In stressful situations, our adrenal glands release cortisol, which gives you the boost of energy you need to make quick decisions and stay alert to answer questions. However, when you return to a safe place, your muscles relax and need to recharge. When you have been injured, your body needs to repair itself and uses a lot of energy to begin the healing process. This can make you feel extremely tired or sleepy.
Depression / Source: Johan Larson/Shutterstock.com
After a car accident, when you finally get some much-needed sleep, pain and stiffness in your neck can make it difficult to sleep. This can lead to sleep deprivation and depressive symptoms (and sometimes even depression).
Disorders of the cervical spine
Radiculopathy (pinched nerve)
Cervical spine conditions, such as radiculopathy, can lead to pain and stiffness. Radiculopathy involves a pinched nerve in the spine, causing complaints in the area where the nerve is supplied. This causes pain and a numb feeling or tingling.
Many problems in the cervical spine can lead to a stiff neck. The stiffness may be a response to the underlying condition in the cervical spine. This may include the following conditions:
- Neck hernia / hernia cervicalis;
- Cervical canal stenosis or narrowing of the cervical spinal canal; and
- cervical osteoarthritis (deterioration of the quality of the cartilage in your neck, causing damage to your vertebrae).
Meningitis can occur with chickenpox / Source: 9Gawin/Shutterstock.com
Meningitis or meningitis
Meningitis is an uncommon cause of stiff neck. However, bacterial meningitis is a potentially serious condition, making it worth mentioning. In this condition, the meninges become inflamed, which can cause symptoms such as high fever, drowsiness, confusion and a stiff neck. You are having difficulty bending your neck forward. If you suspect meningitis, you must seek medical attention immediately.
Fix and treat stiff neck
In most cases, a stiff neck is caused by muscle tension or muscle strain. These complaints can often be treated adequately and resolved within a few days. As a general rule, it is advisable to seek medical attention if the stiff neck does not disappear within a week, if the complaints worsen, or if the neck complaints are not accompanied by other disturbing symptoms, as is the case with meningitis. It is also wise to consult a doctor if there is an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.
Treating muscle tension
In the treatment of muscle tension headaches, the emphasis is on treatment without medications. First of all, it is important to find out what the triggering factors are or what the factors are that worsen the complaints. By avoiding these factors, the complaints can decrease or disappear completely. Sometimes adjustments to your work(place) are required. Furthermore, a number of therapies are possible, such as relaxation therapies to better deal with stress and tension and cognitive (behavioral) therapy to better deal with the consequences of pain. In addition, simple relaxation exercises can help to relax the neck muscles and prevent stiff neck and neck pain.
Heat against neck stiffness
Applying heat to the painful area in the form of creams, gels, a warm cherry stone bag, or a warm shower can relieve the pain.
Paracetamol has an analgesic and fever-reducing effect / Source: Martin Sulman
If necessary, use painkillers to ease the pain and to keep moving. It is important that you take the painkillers at a fixed time and build up a ‘mirror’ so that the pain does not arise again and again. Do this for a number of days and preferably use paracetamol: 500 mg 2 times a day.
Stiff neck: exercises
There are a number of simple exercises that you can perform for a ‘normal’ stiff neck. It can loosen your neck little by little. Simple neck exercises can provide relief from the complaints. These movements ensure that the joints and muscles in the neck work together. When these exercises are done six to eight times a day, a stiff neck can be prevented. Do these exercises carefully, without forcing anything and at a leisurely pace.
The exercises are:
- Bow your head: For example, bow your head forward and back ten times while continuing to look forward.
- Looking over your shoulder: You can then look back over your shoulder first to the left and then to the right. Repeat ten times.
- Bring ear to shoulder: then move your left ear to your left shoulder and then your right ear to your right shoulder. Repeat ten times.
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