A stiff neck is an acute, painful restriction in the movement of the neck. The pain often occurs unexpectedly, usually overnight. The neck is stiff and can barely be moved to the side, forward or back. The whole neck and head is locked in place and the pain radiates into the shoulder. The pain in the neck is annoying and unpleasant, but mostly harmless. In most cases, the patient recovers in a few days.

Stiff neck treatment

Causes of a stiff neck

In the most common cases, muscle tension is the cause of a stiff neck (medically: acute torticollis). This muscle tension can be triggered by a wide range of factors:

  • Poor physical posture: Due to an unfavourable sleeping position, poor posture in the workplace, continuous monotonous sequences of movement or incorrect loading of the spine.
  • Physical strain and stress: Physical strain and long-term stress can trigger neck pain over a prolonged period of time.
  • Environmental factors: Acute neck pain often occurs as a result of a draught or cool breeze. In the hot summer months, an air-conditioning system that blows cold air in the neck area is often the cause.
  • Illnesses & injuries: In rare cases, neck pain can also occur as a concomitant symptom of illnesses or as a result of injuries. This includes, for instance, a visual impairment, intervertebral disc damage, strokes or tumours.

Symptoms of neck tension

Due to tension in the muscles, pain in the neck and head area often occurs and can spread into the shoulders. Those affected are thus significantly limited in their movement because of the acute pain. Symptoms such as tiredness, visual impairments, nausea or dizziness can also occur in a small number of cases. In rare cases, the pain can spread from the head to the arm. When this occurs, intervertebral disc damage is usually present.

How long does a stiff neck last?

Doctors distinguish between acute and chronic neck pain:

  • Acute neck pain: Symptoms last for a few days to a maximum of two weeks and subside by themselves without medical treatment.
  • Chronic neck pain: In rare cases, pain and symptoms can last several months.

What helps a stiff neck?

If tense muscles in the shoulders and neck are causing stiffness, you can help yourself in most cases. The aim is to stimulate blood flow in the neck and thus ease the tension. The following measures can offer you relief:

  • Heat: Warm the painful muscles with classic household items such as hot water bottles and poultices or with heat patches or an infrared lamp.
  • Movement: Light activities help to relax the muscles and promote blood flow in the neck again. The main cause of poor or one-sided posture can be remedied at the same time.
  • Massage: Massages are an effective way to alleviate tension. The muscles are activated and blood flow is promoted. It is easy to massage your neck yourself, or you can consult a professional massage therapist or physiotherapist.
  • Pain relief: Simple pain relief from the medicine cabinet alleviates the symptoms and inhibits inflammation. It helps by stopping you cramping up any more and preventing the neck pain from spreading further.

When should you go to the doctor?

If the stiff neck lasts longer than a week, you should consult a doctor. Once X-rays have been taken at the practice, treatment by physiotherapists and chiropractors with suitable loosening exercises for the muscles can begin. Patients do not need any further treatment after 3–4 weeks.

If the pain does not subside after this time, magnetic resonance imaging is performed to look for a slipped disc, a malformation or a tumour. Consulted neurologists can identify the cause of the pain by measuring the various nerves in the area of the cranium and the upper limbs.

In the event of damage to the intervertebral disc, local pain relief medication with steroid application to the damaged area often provides the desired alleviation. For very difficult pain pathologies, an artificial disc in the case of intervertebral disc damage or a spinal fusion for inflammatory changes to the bone can be considered at a later time, depending on the findings.

Prevention of neck pain

To prevent neck pain and tension in the long term, it is important to know what causes them. It is thus a case of identifying and avoiding triggers.

Identify triggers:

  • Avoid cold temperatures and draughts
  • Reduce stress
  • Test eyesight
  • Change sleeping position (replace pillows or mattress)
  • Set up workplace ergonomically so that it is easy on the spine

Exercises to prevent neck pain:

Specific training and loosening of the neck muscles helps to prevent future neck pain. In everyday life, short breaks can be used to stretch and extend the muscles. Regular sporting activities are also a good way to strengthen the muscles; they also promote physical well-being and help to relieve stress.

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