Most people experience a stiff neck every now and then, and the condition is typically nothing to worry about. In most cases, medical care is not required, and there are many ways to soothe the discomfort and help the neck recover. Stiffness is most often caused by stress or injury to the muscles in the area, so treatment usually involves relaxing the muscles and taking pressure off the neck to help them heal.
Rest and Support the Neck
One way to relieve a stiff neck is to take some of the pressure off the muscles. You can wear a soft cervical collar, available where medical supplies are sold, or you can make a similar type of support at home. Place a rolled up towel in your shirt collar or along your collar-line, and pin the ends snug around your neck. If you can, sleep on your back with a pillow supporting the curve of your spine. If you’re unable to sleep this way, try sleeping on your side with a firm pillow for your head, and slip a small pillow between your knees to help support your spine.
You'll need to rest the neck while it's recovering as well. This means that any activities that could further strain the muscles and ligaments should be avoided. Don't go running or jogging, and avoid other sports that create a lot of head movement. Even sports like golf can cause you to twist and strain, and it's best to take a break from them until you're fully healed. Try not to lift anything heavy — whether weights or even just items around the house — that can cause you to tighten those muscles.
Apply Ice and Heat
If the neck pain is caused by an injury, applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel can help reduce the inflammation and aid healing. Apply an ice pack for 15 minutes at a time, with a rest period of 15 minutes in between each application. After the initial 24-hour period, it’s generally better to apply heat rather than ice. A warm shower, a hot water bottle, or a compress, made by soaking a towel in hot water, can be used to aid relaxation.
Massage and Stretches
Relaxing the muscles with a massage or stretches can help relieve the stiffness as well, but both should be done only very gently. A massage should be very smooth and light, focusing more on relaxation than kneading out the tension. Move the neck slowly up and down and from side to side to stretch the muscles. Putting extra stress on the tissues in the neck can make the problem worse, so don't move too quickly or do anything that causes additional pain.
Natural medicines can be a great aid to relax stiff muscles. Try adding aromatherapy herbs or oils, like peppermint, thyme, marigold, or yarrow, to a salve or massage oil. To make therapeutic massage oil, add a few drops of aromatherapy oil to a tablespoon (14.78 ml) of a carrier oil such as olive, avocado, or grapeseed. To make a salve for stiff muscles, simmer a couple of tablespoons (grams) of a dried herb with a small amount of petroleum jelly for about 15 minutes. Once the salve is cool, rub a small amount on the stiff muscles.
Pain Relief Medications
The pain of a stiff neck often does not go away immediately after applying these treatments, so over-the-counter painkillers such as aspirin or ibuprofen can be useful. Taken as directed, pain medication should help reduce pain and swelling in the muscles. Just as important, they’ll make relaxation easier, as this can be difficult to do when you are in pain. Muscle tension can make the pain worse and prolong its duration, so allowing yourself to relax will help them heal, too.
Stiff Neck Prevention
If you find yourself suffering from a stiff neck regularly, take a look at your daily habits and how you can improve them. Stress, poor posture, and exposure to drafts can all cause tension and pain in the neck. Take time out of every day to relax or do something you enjoy, even if only for a few minutes. Stay away from drafts or wear a scarf in chilly weather so that you don't tense up. Make sure the shocks in your car are working properly to keep your neck from being jolted when you drive. Your neck and spine need to be well supported while you sleep, as well, which can not only help relieve stiffness, but may aid in preventing it in the first place.
Poor posture can be improved with regular stretching and strength exercises. You can perform many of these at your desk, on the bus, or while watching television for just a few minutes out of each hour during the day. If you make an effort to hold your neck comfortably, it will eventually become second nature. Keep your work, such as your computer monitor, at a height that allows you to hold your head in a natural, comfortable position. Avoid activities that compress your neck, such as holding a phone between your head and shoulder.
When to Get Professional Help
In some cases, neck stiffness is a symptom of another illness, or it might indicate the presence of a severe injury. If your neck pain doesn't improve within a week, see a medical professional to determine if there is anything more serious causing the pain. Lack of improvement isn't necessarily a cause for alarm, but if the pain and stiffness isn't going away, there is probably an underlying cause that might need more specialized treatment.
If you've been in a car accident or suffered any type of collision, you could have whiplash or damage to the vertebrae in the neck. You may need an X-ray or other imaging tests to rule out a serious injury. Unless there is major damage, however, a cervical collar and rest are usually prescribed to treat the problem.
Pain that gets worse, spreads, or is accompanied by other symptoms could be signs of a serious problem, so seek medical attention immediately. Symptoms such as headache, drowsiness, fever, numbness, or confusion, along with neck stiffness, can be symptoms of an illness such as meningitis. Neck and arm pain can also be a sign of a heart attack, especially when accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, and sweating. These conditions require immediate emergency medical help.