Is Your Stiff Neck Serious?

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A stiff neck can be a temporary inconvenience or the sign of a problem requiring more attention. Neck stiffness is often characterized by some type of soreness or lingering aches sometimes aggravated by movement. A stiff neck is frequently experienced as a sudden ache or persistent type of pain that becomes worse with movement. You may be referred to a spine doctor if your stiff neck doesn't respond to a few days of rest and similar remedies.

When Neck Stiffness Becomes Serious

Most instances of neck stiffness will go away after some simple stretching or with a little rest and the application of heat or ice. Neck stiffness usually requires attention when the pain continues or becomes progressively worse. If neck stiffness is accompanied by a fever, it may be a sign of meningitis, a bacterial infection that causes the inflammation of protection membranes in the spinal cord and brain. Symptoms associated with a stiff neck may include:

• Lingering neck pain
• Shoulder and arm pain
• Intermittent discomfort

Possible Causes of Neck Stiffness

Muscle strain or sprain is the most common cause of neck stiffness. In particular, the levator scapula muscle that connects the neck with the shoulders is often a source of neck strain. Holding your neck in an unnatural position, as may be the case when cradling a phone or extending your neck downward for long periods of time, can contribute to neck stiffness. A stiff neck may also result from:

• Awkward sleep positions
• Sports injuries
• Repetitious neck movements
• Poor posture
• Stress and anxiety

Treatments for Neck Stiffness

Most of the time, a stiff neck is treated with conservative remedies such as muscle strengthening exercises, over-the-counter or prescription medications to reduce temporary inflammation, efforts to improve neck-spine alignment, and avoiding certain neck positions. As a general rule, symptoms that don't go away after a week should be professionally evaluated to determine a cause of the discomfort. A spine doctor may recommend:

• Physical therapy or low-impact stretches
• Localized injections or pain medications
• Image testing to rule out other causes

Surgery is rarely an option to treat a stiff neck unless there is an underlying cause that's mechanical in nature, such as cervical disc herniation or cervical degenerative disease. The role of a spine doctor is to clearly explain your options and determine a probable source of your neck stiffness and any related discomfort you may be experiencing to help you make a confident treatment decision.