Stiff Neck: A Look at Possible Causes

A stiff neck could result from several reasons. Maybe you didn't sleep right a few days back and you got a kink in your neck. Or maybe you've been working on the computer too long for a few months now.

A stiff neck for a few days isn’t usually a matter of real concern. But when the feeling is prolonged and doesn’t seem to be going away, you need to investigate its possible causes. A stiff neck can limit how much you can move your head (if at all), and also inflict severe pain and discomfort.

In this article, we will explore the different causes behind a stiff neck both short-term and long-term.

Sprains, Strains, and Minor Injuries

The muscles in your neck could be stretched or there may be muscle tears – these are called strains. The levator scapulae muscle i.e., the muscle at the back of your neck (the transverse process C1-C4) connects with the superior scapula or shoulder blade and is very commonly injured in daily activities.

These include sudden impacts that twist your head/neck such as sports injuries, sleeping in uncomfortable or awkward positions, poor posture, or slouching while using the computer, phone, or books i.e., “text neck”. Stress can also cause your neck muscles to stiffen.

Alternatively, ligaments or tendons (soft tissue) that connect bones or muscles to bone respectively, could be sprained.

These ligaments and tendons could get twisted, torn, or stretched and cause stiffness alongside other symptoms like pain, swelling, and tenderness. This can happen during an accident that makes your head jerk back and forth, during contact injuries in sports, or if have a fall.

You may also have muscle spasms in which your muscles contract involuntarily causing pain. It usually occurs due to low electrolyte levels like potassium or magnesium, or too much muscular exertion such as when moving furniture or lifting weights.

Major Accidents

Major accidents can cause major trauma to the ligaments, muscles, and tendons through whiplash.

This is when your head jerks back and forth violently during a collision and results in dizziness, headaches, burning or pickling on the neck, pain in your back or shoulder, and difficulty concentrating or memory loss. This is more severe and may affect the nerves in the neck as well.


Arthritis of the neck i.e., cervical spondylosis can cause stiffness of the neck joints and muscles, along with limited mobility. It can be diagnosed with MRI scans, X-Rays, and blood tests. This condition may be accompanied by weakness and numbness in the legs and feet, issues with balance and coordination, and difficulty in walking.

Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, can also damage the neck joints due to inflammation as can osteoarthritis which usually occurs with old age and is a consequence of wear and tear. It can also occur as post-traumatic arthritis, more common in younger people after an injury or accident where the bones have been broken, fractured, or dislocated.

Spinal Stenosis

This is a condition that causes a narrowing of the spinal canal which also places immense pressure on the spinal cord and the spinal cord nerves.

It usually occurs together with other degenerative conditions like cervical osteoarthritis in which the cervical spine becomes worn out, dehydrates, breaks down, and stiffens – usually with age.

Degenerative Disorders

Other than cervical osteoarthritis, other degenerative diseases like cervical degenerative disc disease can also contribute to stiffness in the neck. Cervical degenerative disc disease occurs when the discs in between the vertebrae of your spine begin to lose hydration and height, and their viscoelasticity which allows them to provide a cushioning effect deteriorates.


These bone spurs usually do not cause any trouble. But if these extra lumps of bone that protrude from the spine or joints begin to impinge on the nerves or tendons, place pressure on ligaments, or rub against bones it can cause pain and stiffness. This may also occur if the bone spurs break away and get stuck in the joint linings.

Osteophytes occur post damage to the bones/joints after injuries, degenerative joint disease, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis. In such conditions, the body tries to affix more bone to the injured area to fix the injury, causing excess bony growths i.e., osteophytes.

Osteophytes can occur due to aging, overuse of joints such as through lifelong dancing or running, genetic or congenital bone problems, obesity, or spinal stenosis.


This disorder is chronic and can affect any part of your body, although stiffness in the neck and neck pain are the most common symptoms. The causes of fibromyalgia remain multiple- there is no one specific cause for its development.

But fibromyalgia is a widespread pain that is also accompanied by symptoms like anxiety, depression, and heightened stress levels which can also contribute to a stiff neck.

Cervical Herniated Disc

Cervical discs are the elastic cushioning discs placed between the spinal bones. Sometimes the soft inner core of the disc breaks through the protective exterior layer and leaks out, compressing nerves and soft tissues and causing inflammation, numbness, and pain.


This is a potentially life-threatening infection (viral/bacterial/fungal) of the brain and spinal cord which can either resolve on its own or requires emergency treatment.

This causes the three membranes i.e., the meninges that shield the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed and also cause muscular rigidity leading to stiffness and restrained mobility in the neck.

Conclusion – Prevention and Treatment

Take good care of your neck by avoiding lugging heavy weights, and wear the appropriate protective gear while playing sports or driving vehicles.

The different causes of a stiff neck can be resolved using anything from physiotherapy, applying hot or cold compresses, taking stretch breaks between work, and using ergonomic chairs and pillows for your office and bedroom.

Undertake stress relief activities such as exercise, yoga, meditation, massages, or relaxing baths. You may also need medication such as antibiotics to counter the infection, IV fluids for rehydration, and corticosteroids or NSAIDs for pain and inflammation.

You must rest your neck and refrain from heavy-duty activities that strain it further, for which purpose a cervical collar will keep your neck still.

Updated on: 30-Mar-2023


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