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Causes of a Stiff Neck

Deepa Kartha Nov 1, 2018
Most of the time stiff necks are not very serious and can be cured with simple home remedies. However, having a stiff neck can be an indication of a serious medical problem. Hence, it is important to know about the reasons that can cause a person to have stiff neck.
Once in a while, most of us experience an inability to move our neck after getting up in the morning. The usual reason for such stiff neck episodes is an improper way of sleeping. However, having a stiff neck can be associated with many other medical conditions too.
Therefore, though it is fine to try some simple remedies for a few days, having a stiff neck for a long time should be taken as a serious concern. Stiff neck is caused due to the tightening of the neck muscles, especially the levator scapula which is the muscle that acts as a connection between the neck and the shoulder.
Stiff neck is generally associated with pain and discomfort around the neck area. Due to this, knowing everything about causes of stiff neck is essential.


The reason for a person to have a stiff neck will not be the same for another person. However, with any kind of stiff neck, immediate treatment is very important because having a stiff neck can cause discomfort as well as pain. Hence, here are a list of factors that can cause stiff neck.

Improper Back and Neck Posture

Mostly, stiff neck is caused due to sleeping in an improper position. While the body relaxes, the neck may get strained if one sleeps in an awkward position, pulling the muscles or pinching a nerve in the neck.
This also occurs when one sleeps without proper support of the pillows or due to the use of two or more pillows. Afternoon naps taken on couches without adequate space for the entire body can also be a cause for a stiff neck.
Apart from that, other reasons for a person to develop stiff neck include holding the neck to one side continuously while typing, talking on the phone for a very long time, etc. Moreover, sitting in an inappropriate position while watching television or reading a book can also lead a person to have stiff neck.

Injury or Accident

Stiff neck can be caused due to whiplash i.e. sudden jerk of the neck which happens while indulging in vigorous physical activities, sports, games, etc. Indulging in sports like swimming, vigorous tennis, etc. can sometimes cause a whiplash which leads to neck injury due to which the person is unable to move his neck without hurting himself.
People involved in accidents where the neck was subjected to sudden movements are also likely to experience stiff neck.


Arthritis, which is caused due to the weakening of the joints and the muscles of the body can also be the cause of stiff neck. There are two types of neck arthritis that can lead to stiff neck and both of them are more common in elderly people.
People who have osteoarthritis experience wear and tear of their joints that leads to stiffness and limited movement of the neck. Damage of the joints is called rheumatoid arthritis and when it affects the joints of the neck, stiffness is usually experienced in the upper part of the neck.
Another reason for an individual to have stiff neck which is caused due to arthritis is pinched nerve. Stiff neck due to this usually extends to the arms and legs too.

Emotional Stress and Tension

Apart from the physical reasons for experiencing stiff neck, there is another very common cause for a person to have this problem which does not have any connection with physical problems. In simple words, high emotional stress and mental tension are said to be the most common causes.
When a person is in stress, the muscles, especially those around the neck and shoulders tend to become tensed, which gives rise to muscle spasms in neck due to which he may lose the ability to move his neck freely.

Infectious Diseases

Stiff neck along with some other symptoms can also be an indicator of an infectious disease like meningitis. Meningitis can be described as a disease that is caused due to inflammation of tissues that surround the brain and the spinal cord.
If stiff neck occurs due to this disease, the accompanying symptoms may include high fever, headache, vomiting, etc. Sometimes, stiff neck can occur due to a simple viral infection too.
If stiffness in the neck is caused due to a minor problem like incorrect position while sitting, sleeping or reading, the pain and discomfort will soon disappear by applying heat or ice pack as well as with the help of pain killers. Gentle massage on the neck will also help in relieving the pain.
In some cases, your health practitioner may recommend application of heat to relax your neck muscles. However, if the condition does not lessen even after a week-long treatment or if it is experienced along with numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms or hand, it can be a serious case of stiff neck.
In such situations, one needs to consult a health practitioner who can look for the main cause of the problem and recommend an effective treatment.