Most people will have a minor neck problem at one time or another. Our body movements usually do not cause problems, but it’s not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear, overuse, or injury. Neck problems and injuries most commonly occur during sports or recreational activities, work-related tasks, or projects around the home.

Neck pain may feel like a “kink,” stiffness, or severe pain. Pain may spread to the shoulders, upper back, or arms, or it may cause a headache. Neck movement may be limited, usually more to one side than the other. Neck pain refers to pain anywhere from the area at the base of the skull into the shoulders. The neck includes:

  • The bones and joints of the cervical spine (vertebrae camera.gif of the neck).
  • The discs that separate the cervical vertebrae and absorb shock as you move.
  • The muscles and ligaments in the neck that hold the cervical spine together.


Symptoms associated with a stiff neck typically last for a couple of days or a week and may prompt neck pain that ranges from mildly painful but annoying to extremely painful and limiting. While there are a few instances in which neck stiffness is a sign of a serious medical condition, most episodes of acute neck stiffness or pain heal quickly due to the durable and recuperative nature of the cervical spine.

When to see a doctor

In the vast majority of cases, a stiff neck is caused by a simple muscle strain or sprain and may be treated within a few days.

As a general rule, it is advisable to seek medical attention if the stiff neck symptoms do not subside after one week, or if the neck symptoms occur along with other troubling symptoms, as there may be an underlying medical condition that needs treatment.


First aid for a stiff neck caused by muscle strain or soft tissue injury may include one or a combination of the following:


Resting for one or two days will allow any injured tissue in the neck to begin to heal, which in turn will help relieve stiffness and possible muscle spasm. However, it is recommended to limit rest to one or two days, as too much inactivity can lead to a weakening of the muscles, and weak muscles have to struggle to adequately support the neck and head.

Gentle Stretching

As soon as tolerated, it is a good idea to gently stretch the neck. Stretching, as tolerated, will help ease the stiffness and restore the neck to a more natural range of motion. For many, it is a good idea to learn appropriate stretches with the help of a physical therapist or other qualified health professional.

Heat and Ice Packs

Cold therapy/ice packs help relieve most types of neck stiffness by reducing local inflammation. Applying heat to the neck can spur blood flow, which fosters a better healing environment. Often patients use ice, but some prefer heat. Both may be used alternately.



Many over-the-counter and prescription medications are available. NSAIDs, which work by reducing inflammation, are often a first line of treatment for neck stiffness and soreness. Common types of NSAIDs are ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (e.g. Naprosyn). Even nonprescription medications have risks, possible side effects and drug (or food or supplement) interactions, so be sure to discuss any medications with a pharmacist or doctor.

Low-Impact Aerobic Exercise

In addition to stretching, any form of low-impact aerobic exercise, such as walking, is often helpful in relieving any type of stiffness. Even if walking doesn’t directly involve the neck, it helps circulate oxygen to the soft tissues throughout the spine, which in turn promotes healing.


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