Neck pain or a stiff neck is a common problem and generally nothing to worry about.
The pain and stiffness usually gets better after a few days, and is not a sign of a more serious neck problem or underlying condition.
You can get a painful or stiff neck if you sleep in an awkward position, use a computer keyboard for a prolonged period of time, or even from sitting in a draft.
Anxiety and stress can also sometimes cause tension in your neck muscles, which can lead to pain in your neck.
However, there is often no obvious cause of neck pain and doctors will refer to it as 'nonspecific'.
This page covers:
- managing neck pain or stiff neck at home
- when to see your doctor
- a twisted or locked neck
- nerve or bone problems in your neck
Managing neck pain at home
Whatever the cause of neck pain or a stiff neck, the advice is generally the same: carry on with your normal daily activities, keep active and take painkillers to relieve the symptoms. See below for some more specific advice.
- Take doses of ibuprofen to control pain – ibuprofen gel can be rubbed onto your neck as an alternative to taking tablets. Always follow the dosage instructions that come with the medication.
- Try holding a hot water bottle or heat pack to your neck – this can help reduce the pain and any muscle spasms.
- Sleep on a low, firm pillow at night – avoid using two pillows because it may force your neck to bend unnaturally.
- Check your posture – bad posture can aggravate the pain and it may have caused it in the first place.
- Avoid wearing a neck collar – there is no evidence to suggest that wearing a neck collar will help to heal your neck, and it is better to keep your neck mobile.
- Avoid driving until the pain and stiffness have gone – it may prevent you turning your head to view traffic.
- If your neck is stiff or twisted, try some simple neck exercises – gently tense your neck muscles as you tilt your head up and down and from side to side, and as you carefully twist your neck from left to right. These exercises will help strengthen your neck muscles and improve your range of movement.
When to see your doctor
See your doctor if the pain or stiffness does not improve after a few days and you are worried, or if you cannot control the pain using ordinary painkillers.
Your doctor will examine your neck and ask some questions to help rule out any serious underlying damage or condition. They may also prescribe a stronger painkiller, such as codeine, to take with your usual over-the-counter painkillers.
If you have had neck pain or stiffness for a few weeks, ask your doctor to refer you to a physiotherapist. There is no scientific evidence that chiropractic or acupuncture are effective treatments for a stiff neck or neck pain.
If your symptoms are particularly severe or do not improve, your doctor may consider referring you to a pain specialist for painkilling injections.
A twisted or locked neck
Some people suddenly wake up one morning to find their neck twisted to one side and stuck in that position. This is known as acute torticollis and is caused by injury to the neck muscles.
Torticollis can occur after long exposure to a cold draft, or after your neck has been in an unusual position.
See your doctor for treatment, and to rule out any serious underlying cause. Acute torticollis can take up to a week to get better, but usually only lasts 24-48 hours. Manage your pain at home by following the advice above.
You may be able to manage your pain at home by following the advice outlined above. However, make an appointment to see your doctor if your symptoms persist for more than 48 hours. Your doctor will examine your neck and may recommend further treatment.
Nerve or bone problems in the neck
Cervical spondylosis occurs naturally with age. It does not always cause symptoms, although in some people the bone changes can cause neck stiffness. Nearby nerves can also be squashed, resulting in pain that radiates from the arms, pins and needles and numbness in the hands and legs.
Neck pain caused by a squashed nerve is known as cervical radiculopathy. It can sometimes occur after your neck has been held in an awkward position, after twisting or bending your body abnormally, or following the use of vibrating power tools.
The pain can often be controlled by following the advice listed above. However, if your symptoms persist, you may be referred for an MRI scan. You may also want to talk to your doctor about being referred for pain management.