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What Does a Stiff Neck Indicate?

By Kristin Dorman

Symptoms of a stiff neck include soreness, pain and difficulty turning your head. You may also experience headaches and shoulder or arm pain in conjunction with a stiff neck. In most cases, a stiff neck results from muscle strain and goes away in a few days with rest and proper care. However, a stiff neck may indicate an infection or serious damage to your spine. Consult your physician for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Muscle Strain

Neck stiffness from muscle strain frequently involves tightness or sprains in your levator scapula muscle. This muscle connects from the top four vertebrae of your cervical spine to your scapula, or shoulder blade. Neck strain causes include sleeping in a bad position, poor posture, stress tension, sports accidents and repetitive neck movements. Take over-the- counter pain medicine, apply heat or ice, get a massage and rest your neck muscles for minor neck strain.

Slipped Disc

If you feel numbness or tingling along with a stiff neck you may have a slipped disc. A slipped disc involves displacement and rupturing in the connective tissue pads between each of your vertebrae. Doctors try to treat herniated discs with physical therapy, painkillers and heat, though sometimes surgery is necessary. Frequently, neck pain from a slipped disc results from displaced nerves instead of tissue ruptures.

Spine Disorders

Whiplash, spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis also cause neck stiffness and pain. Whiplash occurs when your neck whips forward then backward suddenly during a car accident or sudden traumatic event. Pain results from stretched ligaments and joints, and your doctor may prescribe a neck brace, painkillers and physical therapy. Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of your spinal column that puts pressure on nerves and occurs more frequently with age. Osteoarthritis is joint damage resulting from aging, wear and tear.


If you have a high fever, headache, confusion, sleepiness, nausea and vomiting along with neck stiffness you may have an illness such as meningitis. Meningitis means swelling and inflammation in your membranes surrounding your brain and spinal column. A virus, bacterial or fungal infection may cause meningitis, which requires immediate medical attention. Treatment involves antibiotics for bacterial infections and supportive care such as intravenous fluids. In some cases, surgery is necessary to prevent brain damage.

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