While neck pain can often be traced to injury or specific health conditions, work and home routines can be culprits too. Most of the time, neck pain is temporary, but it can become chronic without proper care.
A stiff neck can be painful and can interfere with your daily activities. Your symptoms may even make it hard to get a good night’s sleep.
According to statistics from 2012 National Health Interview Survey data published in 2016,
- Poor posture
- Stress, muscle tension
- Muscle strain
- A compressed or pinched nerve
- Disc degeneration
- A spinal cord injury
- A concussion
Neck pain is
- High stress levels
To prevent neck pain from becoming a chronic concern, it’s important to address it right away. Stretching, lifestyle adjustments, and medication can all help alleviate muscle pain and tension in the neck.
Neck pain can often arise from muscle tension or injuries, but certain medical conditions have neck pain as a side effect as well. This includes viral and bacterial infections, which can cause your lymph nodes to become inflamed and swollen.
Neck stiffness or pain can be a symptom of:
- The common cold or the flu
- The Epstein-Barr virus or mononucleosis (mono)
- Thyroid conditions, including thyroiditis (inflammation of the gland)
- Heart disease or a heart attack
Symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, trouble breathing, and feeling light-headed. If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing a heart attack, contact 911 or local emergency services immediately.
Remember that any pain, stiffness, or mobility issues involving your neck should be evaluated by a doctor. It’s important to rule out injuries and infections. Always ask for professional medical advice before trying approaches on your own.
A physical evaluation by a doctor can help identify the cause of your pain. X-ray, MRI, and ultrasound imaging can also be helpful in making a diagnosis.
Apply heat or ice
Ice can help reduce inflammation and swelling by lowering blood flow to an area. Heat does the opposite, stimulating blood flow.
Both ice and heat can work together to help soothe a strained or torn muscle, and give it time to heal. They can provide timely pain relief for an overworked spot on your body, such as the neck.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) recommends applying ice for 20 minutes a few times a day for soft tissue injuries. Make sure you buy or make a cold compress that prevents the ice from directly touching your skin.
You can alternate between applying ice and heat. Taking a warm bath or shower or using a heating pad may also help.
Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
OTC pain relievers don’t require a prescription and can help reduce general pain and inflammation in the body. OTC pain relievers include a class of medication called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Common NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve).
Another OTC pain reliever is acetaminophen (Tylenol), but while this medication can reduce pain, it doesn’t have anti-inflammatory properties.
Always take these as directed by a doctor or by following the instructions on the bottle. NSAIDs and other OTC pain relievers can have side effects, including upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea.
Stretch but avoid sudden movements
Stretching can help relieve pain and stiffness and prevent it from recurring in the future. It’s important to stretch gently and slowly, making sure you always breathe in and out fully. Sudden movements, or over-stretching, can cause more pain or injury.
Exercises to relieve neck pain and stiffness are often straightforward and can be done at home (or at your desk). Talk with a doctor or physical therapist (PT) about creating a manageable routine that works for you.
Stretches often used to help with neck stiffness include:
- Rolling your shoulders backward and then forward in a circle
- Pressing your shoulder blades together lightly, holding the position for a few seconds, and then repeating
- Slowly turning your head from side to side, as far as is comfortable
See a physical therapist (PT)
A doctor may refer you to a PT if you need help regaining strength and mobility in your neck after an injury. PTs can also help with chronic pain management and relief, assigning helpful exercises to train your muscles.
A PT will create a treatment regimen tailored specifically for you depending on the cause of your stiffness or pain. You’ll see your therapist during regular sessions and do exercises as directed at home. Oftentimes, PT exercises can be done anywhere for a couple of minutes per day!
Consider chiropractic care
A licensed chiropractor manipulates your muscles and joints to provide pain relief.
Chiropractors usually specialize in working on a specific area of the body. Their patients can include everyone from people recovering from injuries to pregnant people.
Talk with a doctor about whether seeing a chiropractor might be the next best step for you.
Book a massage
Massage by a trained practitioner can help to loosen and stretch your neck and back muscles.
Acupuncture involves inserting needles into specific pressure points on your body to relieve stress, tension, and pain. It’s a form of
Some researchers believe acupuncture can trigger our body’s natural pain relievers, while others think it only creates a placebo effect. Regardless, acupuncture continues to be a popular holistic treatment approach across the world.
Acupuncture is considered safe, but going to an expert is key. Visit only a board certified practitioner, and ensure that needles are fully sterilized.
Both the American Society of Acupuncturists and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine offer online directories.
Limit physical activity that bothers your neck
If your neck stiffness and pain started after doing a physical activity, you should limit that activity until the stiffness resolves. These physical activities could include activities done either as part of your job or as recreational exercise.
In general, you should limit heavy lifting and activities that may aggravate your neck muscles any time you have neck pain.
If you have a muscle strain, you’ll likely require rest in order to heal fully. Your ideal rest period will depend on the injury and may range from days to weeks. This window can be determined by a doctor or other healthcare professional.
You can help prevent a stiff neck with lifestyle changes and ergonomic workplace tools, which we’ll explain in this section.
Prevention may also mean breaking some bad habits, such as chronic poor posture. In addition, regular exercise can strengthen your muscles and make them less likely to be strained or injured.
Smoking is also a risk factor for back and neck pain, especially in those with long-term nicotine dependence. Talk with a doctor and consider making a plan to quit.
Stress can cause you to tense the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and back. Reducing stress can help treat and prevent neck pain and stiffness.
You may choose to reduce stress in a variety of ways, including:
- Listening to music
- Practicing a type of meditation
- Taking a vacation or break, even if it’s just a short day trip
- Doing something you enjoy, such as a hobby
It can also help to set healthier boundaries in your personal and professional life. Practice saying “no” to demands on your time when you’re already overloaded.
Regular exercise is associated with numerous health benefits. Many of these can help prevent injury and pain due to weak muscles in your neck or can alleviate tension from stress.
Overall benefits of exercise include:
- Strengthening muscles and bones
- Boosting your immune system
- Helping you sleep better
- Improving your mental health
- Relieving stress
- Increasing your life expectancy
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends
- Children ages 5 to 17 should aim to get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day.
- Adults ages 18 to 64 should aim for 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity, or at least 75 to 150 minutes of higher intensity aerobic physical activity.
Remember that exercise doesn’t have to look like weightlifting or running marathons! Walking, yoga, or playing with your dog are all examples of great ways to get those active minutes in your daily routine.
The best type of exercise for you may depend on your age, location, and ability, among other factors.
Create an ergonomic workplace
Ergonomics refers to adjusting a person’s workspace, schedule, or responsibilities in response to their individual needs. Basically, ergonomics is about making changes to your job so you can do your work better. Ergonomics is often used to adapt jobs to people with chronic health conditions or disabilities.
Ergonomics can offer several management options and solutions when it comes to neck pain.
- Purchasing or requesting a high-quality chair for your office space. An adjustable office chair is ideal.
- Adjusting your chair into a comfortable position. Make sure to keep your feet flat on the floor and your knees a bit lower than your hips.
- Using proper posture while sitting. Maintain proper posture by keeping your back straight and your arms level to the desk.
- Moving your computer so that it’s at eye level. Make sure you aren’t craning your neck up or down.
- Using an adjustable desk or standing desk, if possible. This way you can alternately sit and stand to work. Changing up your position can help lower the strain long hours of sitting has on your body.
- Using an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. This may look like a split keyboard, or a mouse that positions your hand vertically. These changes can improve posture, shoulder cramping, and hand and wrist pain.
- Standing up to stretch and move every hour. When on a break, try to walk around a little to loosen up.
Oftentimes, ergonomic solutions go hand in hand with a regimen from a physical or occupational therapist.
Be mindful of how long you sit
According to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average civilian worker in the United States spends over 43 percent of their workday sitting. For office workers, such as accountants and auditors, that number rose to 91 percent!
Many people sit at their desk working on a computer for 8 hours each day. This can contribute to a stiff neck, as well as other long-term health conditions.
Limit how long you look at a smartphone
Constantly looking down at your phone can pull on your neck muscles, putting a constant strain on them, and sometimes leading to pain. This phenomenon has even earned its own term: tech neck, or text neck.
Researchers found that more than 24 percent of students assigned their neck pain a score greater than 4 on the 11-point Numeric Rating Scale (NRS-11) for pain, indicating “moderate pain” or worse.
Overall, the authors stressed the importance of being mindful of how using mobile devices can contribute to neck pain and that changing positions and reducing the usage duration may be advised.
If you have to use your smartphone often, try some of these tips to reduce your neck strain:
- Hold your phone at eye level.
- Don’t hold your phone between your shoulder and your ear.
- Use earbuds or headphones.
- Take a break from your phone regularly.
- Adjust your position or take a break if you notice pain.
- After using your phone, stretch to relax your muscles.
Learn more: 6 Chiropractor-Approved Exercises to Fight Text Neck.
Don’t drive for long periods at a time without breaks
Just like sitting at your desk all day, sitting behind the wheel of your car can affect your neck.
If you have to drive for long periods, here are some tips for preventing a stiff neck:
- Take breaks to stand up and stretch. Consider setting an alarm to remind you when to stop.
- Make sure your seat is adjusted properly. Set the driver’s seat and headrest in a position that provides you the most support and puts you in good posture.
- Never text and drive. It’s illegal, dangerous, and bad for your neck to be repetitively looking up and down from your phone to the road.
Change your sleep position
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health.
The position you sleep in at night can also affect your neck. Sleeping on your side or your back (supine) can put less strain on your neck than sleeping on your stomach (prone). However, in side sleeping, the alignment of your thoracic and cervical spine is important for preventing neck pain.
Certain pillows claim to provide extra neck support. These claims aren’t always backed up by science, but many people find the right pillow can make a difference in their neck’s comfort during sleep. You might also consider changing your mattress.
Learn more: Why Are You Waking Up with Neck Pain, and What Can You Do About It?
If your neck pain interferes with your regular daily activities, you should see a doctor.
According to the AAOS, you should look for medical care for neck pain right away if:
- Your pain started after an injury, or car accident
- You have pain that spreads down your arms or legs
- There’s numbness or weakness in your arms, hands, or legs
- You have a headache alongside neck pain
These symptoms could be caused by a more serious underlying health condition.
Neck pain is a common problem, affecting millions of people each year. Most of the time, a stiff neck with minor pain can be treated at home with ice, OTC pain relievers, and light stretching.
Lifestyle adjustments can help reduce and prevent neck pain too. Try to take a break from your computer or phone, and be more mindful of your posture. Consider adjusting your sleeping position, or trying a new pillow, if you find yourself consistently waking up with a sore or stiff neck.
If your neck pain persists, worsens, or is accompanied by other symptoms, reach out to a doctor. This is especially important if you recently experienced an injury. Taking action as soon as you notice a problem can prevent the problem from worsening and help you develop preventive tactics.