Meningitis refers to swelling in the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. This type of inflammation affects your nervous system. Meningitis can be viral or bacterial, and symptoms of meningitis can spread throughout your entire body.

Neck pain and stiffness can sometimes be a sign of meningitis. The inflammation of membranes at the base of your brain can cause this symptom, as well as severe headaches and cognitive difficulties.

Let’s take a look at how neck pain can be connected to meningitis, as well as when to be concerned.

Meningitis is a neurological condition that causes inflammation of the membranes around your brain and spinal cord. This condition is typically caused by a bacteria or a virus, but it can also be caused by a fungus, a parasite, or another underlying condition, such as cancer.

Viral meningitis can often go away with rest and fluids as the primary treatment. Bacterial meningitis tends to be far more severe and typically requires doctor-prescribed treatment as well as hospitalization.

It’s important to know that any type of meningitis can lead to complications.

Meningitis neck pain may feel like severe stiffness when you try to turn your neck or bend you neck forward. It may also feel like a deep, throbbing pain that extends from the bottom of your skull down into your upper back. This is caused by swelling located in the back of your neck, behind your skull, that you may be able to feel.

Neck pain from meningitis can be accompanied by a feeling of tenderness or soreness in the affected area. It may also come with a throbbing or persistent headache.

Meningitis refers to inflammation stemming from the meninges. The meninges are three layers of membranes that protect your brain and your spinal cord. These three membranes are called the pia mater, the arachnoid, and the dura mater.

The dura mater is the outermost membrane and the one that is sensitive to pain. If there is anything putting pressure on the dura mater membrane, your body often reacts with a severe throbbing headache.

The dura mater also stiffens when it is irritated. This is why the presence of an infection in your meninges is often enough to cause both neck pain and stiffness.

The symptoms of meningitis can affect your entire central nervous system. That means that the symptoms aren’t focused around your brain or neck, but can also affect your entire body.

Symptoms of meningitis can include:

You don’t need to have every symptom listed to have meningitis.

Meningitis can be diagnosed by testing the blood and spinal fluid of the person who is showing symptoms. There are also several other tests a doctor can conduct during an in-person exam to see if you are showing symptoms of meningitis.

Testing for meningitis may include:

  • A comprehensive physical exam in a doctor’s office. During this exam, you’ll be asked about your symptoms, including any neck pain or stiffness. The doctor may look for something called Brudzinski’s sign through a test where your neck is slowly pulled forward.
  • A blood test may be required to diagnose meningitis. This blood test checks for the types of bacteria to see if you have a blood infection that’s causing meningitis. The blood test can also check for elevated levels of certain proteins to see if you have an infection.
  • Imaging tests, such as a CT scan, may be performed to detect any sign of swelling around your brain or spinal cord.
  • The only test that can definitively diagnose meningitis is a lumbar puncture, which is sometimes called a spinal tap. During this procedure, a doctor uses a needle to draw out cerebrospinal fluid from your brain and spinal cord region. This fluid is then tested for antibodies, protein levels, and white blood cells, among other things.

The treatment for meningitis will depend on the underlying cause of the infection.

Viral meningitis can be treated with rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medication may be recommended by your doctor to help with neck pain, headaches, and other symptoms. In more severe cases, you may be prescribed corticosteroids to reduce membrane swelling.

Bacterial meningitis usually requires hospitalization. You will most likely be treated with an intravenous (IV) drip of antibiotics as soon as you’re diagnosed. Corticosteroids are also frequently prescribed to help reduce brain swelling.

In some cases, your doctor will have to drain fluid from your sinuses to prevent the infection from progressing.

Anyone can contract the infection-causing agent and develop bacterial or viral meningitis. There are some people who are at a higher risk of infection than others. Those at elevated risk include:

  • infants and children who attend school/daycare
  • people who are over age 65
  • people who live in group home settings or college dormitories
  • people who are immunocompromised, such as those with HIV or diabetes
  • people who take immunosuppressant drugs
  • people who have alcohol use disorder

The outlook for people who have meningitis depends on the cause and severity of their infection.

People with a mild case of viral meningitis often make a full recovery within 2 to 4 weeks. Even if you have bacterial meningitis, early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can mean that you start to feel better fairly quickly.

In some cases of bacterial meningitis, the condition is not diagnosed in time to stop the infection from progressing. In these cases, neurological symptoms may take months to recover from.

Some people experience meningitis complications, including permanent damage to the brain’s hearing center, memory loss, and loss of coordination. If the infection continues to progress, it can be fatal. It’s critical that people with bacterial meningitis receive testing and treatment as soon as possible.

Is neck pain a common symptom of meningitis?

Neck pain and stiffness are common symptoms of meningitis. This is because the infection caused by meningitis is located within the membranes that protect your spinal cord and your brain.

What is Brudzinski’s sign?

When you have meningitis, you may experience involuntary movement in your lower body. This type of involuntary movement of the hips or knees as you raise your head is known as Brudzinski’s sign. It can indicate meningitis is present in your body.

When should you go to a doctor for neck pain?

You should see a doctor if you experience any of the following:

  • limited range of motion
  • significant throbbing pain that keeps you from performing daily activities
  • persistent headaches connected to neck stiffness
  • fever and fatigue in addition to neck stiffness, headaches, and joint pain

Neck pain and stiffness can be a symptom of meningitis. Having this symptom doesn’t mean that you have meningitis, but it’s something to be aware of.

Meningitis can be a serious condition that causes death or lasting brain damage. Early treatment and diagnosis will give you the best chance of making a full recovery. If you have neck pain in addition to other meningitis symptoms, you should see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis.