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Reasons for a Stiff Neck and Some Possible Solutions

written by: Angela Atkinson • edited by: KJ Fitness,Ink • updated: 8/26/2009

A stiff neck can be caused by a number of different things. In most cases, a stiff neck is no cause for alarm—but there are certain situations and combined conditions that may indicate a need for medical attention.

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    Common Reasons for a Stiff Neck

    Generally, the feeling of a stiff neck is caused by the levator scapula, which is the muscle that connects your neck to your shoulder. It may or may not be accompanied by a headache.

    Most often, a stiff neck is caused by poor posture or by sleeping in an awkward position, especially without proper head support. Other common causes include working for prolonged periods at a desk (including typing and talking on the telephone without using a headset), sitting in a chair that is not ergonomically sound or over exposure to cold weather.

    Other causes include athletic activities like tennis or swimming. Even just watching the back and forth movements of a tennis match can cause pain in your neck. Plus, stress or anger may cause neck stiffness.

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    How to Treat a Stiff Neck at Home

    When the cause of your stiff neck is due to one of the common reasons listed in the previous paragraph, you can often treat it at home. Begin by taking a pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, assuming you aren’t allergic and have received clearance from your physician to use over the counter pain relievers.

    Within the first 48 to 72 hours of the injury, consider using an ice pack to help relieve pain. This can help to reduce any swelling in the muscles. After that, switch to a heating pad or warm washcloth to help relax the muscles and allow your neck to begin to heal.

    Keep moving, slowly. That is, slowly move your head from side to side as you’re able, rolling your neck in the process. Don’t push yourself too hard—but remember that the longer you don’t move, the stiffer and more painful the condition can become. For safe and effective relief, try isometric neck pain exercises, explained in this article.

    Check out your sleeping situation too. If your mattress isn’t firm, it may help to purchase a new one—or at the very least, place a large piece of plywood between the mattress and box springs for extra support. Also, your pillow could be a culprit. Consider getting an ergonomically correct pillow instead.

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    When to Worry

    In some cases, a stiff neck can be an indication of something much more serious and may indicate the need for an immediate trip to the doctor, or even the emergency room in some cases. If your stiff neck is accompanied by a fever and headache, call your doctor right away. Also contact your doctor immediately if your arm or hand feel numb, you have a lump in your neck, swollen glands or you are having trouble breathing. Depending on the severity of the condition, you may need to go to the emergency room.

    If your stiff neck was caused by an injury and you can’t move your arm or hand, go to the nearest emergency room immediately. In these cases, you may have spinal cord damage or even a broken bone.

    Always check with your doctor before following this or any medical advice.

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    Exercises for Neck Pain and Stiffness

    Bright Hub has fitness-related resources to help you deal with neck pain and stiffness:

    1. Neck Pain Exercises to Ease Muscle Tension

    2. What You Should Know About Neck and Shoulder Tension