Stiff neck is very common problem and most of us go through this condition quite often. Stiff neck can be very annoying and troublesome to the extent that daily activities are affected. Stiff neck is a direct hint at an underlying disorder or disease. So what does a stiff neck indicate? It can indicate several health problems, which are commonly ignored. It is important to understand the causes and symptoms of stiff neck, along with treatment and recovery.

What Does a Stiff Neck Indicate?

What Does a Stiff Neck Indicate?

Neck has seven cervical vertebrae that encircle and envelop the canal and spinal cord. There is a disc between the vertebrae and there are nerves which go across the area. All throughout the area there are neck muscles, veins, arteries, thyroid gland, lymph glands, esophagus, parathyroid glands, larynx and trachea. As these structures run closely to the neck and any abnormality in them, can also affect the neck. A stiff neck can indicate problems with such surrounding structures.

Similarly, neck stiffness may indicate a problem in the neck or the spine. Joint and muscle problems around the neck and shoulders can easily cause a stiff neck. When there is bone damage or nerve malfunctioning, disturbed neck muscle, pain automatically arises. A stiff neck is mainly a reaction of muscle spasm in response to some underlying injury or disease. As stiff neck causes reduced movements, it protects the delicate parts of the neck from further damage. Simply said, a stiff neck indicates that there is an injury, degeneration or some disease pathology in the structures related to the neck. These could be the joints, muscles, soft tissue, nerves, blood vessels, etc.

However stiff neck also indicates symptom of meningitis, which are associated with headache, vomiting and fever. Other serious infections, tumors, or other growths in the neck region, too can affect the neck movements. Thus a stiff neck can sometimes indicate more serious problems too, which may need immediate medical attention.

Causes of a Stiff Neck

The causes of a stiff neck are many. Some of the commonest problems causing a stiff neck include injuries like fractures, sprains and strains, whiplash, injuries to the spine or the intervertebral disc.

Some of the most important causes of a stiff neck include degenerative disorders like cervical spondylitis, osteoarthritis, frozen shoulder, degenerative disc disease and herniated disc.

  • Cervical herniated disc can cause compression and inflammation in the tissues around the neck. This causes pain, stiffness and inflammation in the area.
  • Cervical degenerative disc disease occurs when the discs start losing hydration. Over time this triggers pressure in the intervertebral area, thus affecting the nerves, muscles and ligaments and soft tissues. Gradually there is stiffness and neck pain.
  • Cervical osteoarthritis, another condition that causes a stiff neck. Aging and degeneration of the cervical spine causes the vertebral bones to rub against each other, losing the cushion in them. It also gives rise to bone spurs, which further affect neck movements and causes a stiff neck.

A stiff neck is caused by and can indicate other health problems like rheumatoid arthritis, diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, fibromyalgia, polymyalgia rheumatic, fungal meningitis, virus infection and many more.

Other problems which may trigger pain and cause a stiff neck include torticollis, nerve entrapment in neck, poor posture, lifting excessive weight and repetitive stress.

Symptoms of a Stiff Neck

While having stiff neck, there may be continuous or intermittent pain, with difficulty in moving the neck. Symptoms of a stiff neck mainly include restricted neck movements, with a feeling as if the neck is completely rigid. There is difficulty and discomfort in turning the neck sideways or up and down.

If left unattended, the symptoms of a stiff neck may continue for weeks. This may be accompanied with other signs and symptoms of a stiff neck, which include severe pain on movement or jerk, swelling and tenderness on touch.

Other associated symptoms of a stiff neck are headache, nausea, sometimes vomiting and vertigo or feeling of going round. Neck stiffness may also result in pain in shoulders, upper back, arms and hands. If there is nerve compression around the stiff neck, it may also cause pain, burning sensation, numbness or tingling in the arms, hands and fingers.

The exact nature of symptoms and the severity may vary from person to person. However, if the symptoms of a stiff neck are not addressed in time, it can cause further problems. The pain may spread across the arm area often causing one or double sided headache or pain. Persistent neck and shoulder pain can lead to abnormal neck posture, which further deteriorates the conditions and cause more pain and neck stiffness.

Treatments for a Stiff Neck

Treatment of a stiff neck mainly depends on the underlying cause. The main aim of the treatment is to reduce stiffness, pain and other symptoms, while identifying and the treating the main cause.

In most cases, rest is advised, so that the strained neck muscles get enough time to heal. In some cases, temporary use of a neck collar may be advised to prevent further injuries. Ice packs may be advised in acute injuries and strains, while warm packs or alternate compresses can help in chronic muscular pain. Normal activities can be resumed only after the neck pain and stiffness is gone and with medical advice. It is better not to perform rigorous activities, sports or lift weight till the strained neck is completely healed.

Other treatments for a stiff neck include

  • To get rid of the pain, one may go for short term manual treatment as offered by chiropractic or physiotherapy.
  • There are different pain relieving and anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed to provide relief and to reduce swelling.
  • For prolonged pain, adequate rest and muscle strengthening is suggested. This may include intensive muscle training, physiotherapy, which incorporates proper advice on posture using a supportive pillow.
  • Another method that offers great benefits and effective relief from a stiff neck is acupuncture.
  • Other treatments may include the use of antibiotics or there medicines to treat underlying infections. Steroids may be considered in some cases like arthritis.
  • Tumors or other problems may have to be dealt with advanced treatments and in some cases, even surgery.

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Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD, FFARCSI

Last Modified On: August 8, 2017

Pain Assist Inc.

Pramod Kerkar
  Note: Information provided is not a substitute for physician, hospital or any form of medical care. Examination and Investigation is necessary for correct diagnosis.

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