Neck pain or a stiff neck is a common complaint and generally nothing to worry about.
Usually, the pain or stiffness gets better after a few days and is not a sign of any neck problem or serious underlying condition.
Neck pain or a stiff neck can result from a sprain after bending your neck into an abnormal position (for example, by sleeping on too many pillows), from poor posture, or even from sitting in a draught for too long.
But often, there is no obvious cause and doctors will refer to it as 'non-specific'.
This page covers:
- Managing your neck pain or neck stiffness at home
- When to see your GP
- A twisted or locked neck
- Problems with the nerves or bones in your neck
Back pain, shoulder pain and whiplash (neck injury) are covered in separate topics.
Managing neck pain or a stiff neck at home
Whatever the cause of neck pain or a stiff neck, the advice is generally the same: carry on with your normal lifestyle, keep active and take painkillers to relieve the symptoms. See more specific advice below.
Take regular doses of paracetamol, ibuprofen or a combination of the two to control pain. Ibuprofen gel can be rubbed onto the neck as an alternative to tablets. Always follow the dosage instructions on the packet.
Try holding a hot water bottle or heat pack to your neck to reduce any pain and muscle spasms.
Sleep on a low, firm pillow at night. Avoid using two pillows as this may force your neck to bend unnaturally.
Check your posture, as this can aggravate the pain and may have caused it in the first place.
Avoid wearing a neck collar – there is no evidence that this will help to heal your neck, and it is better to keep the neck mobile. If you must wear one to make your neck more comfortable, do not wear it for more than 48 hours.
Avoid driving until the pain and stiffness have gone, as you will not be able to turn your head to view traffic.
If your neck is stiff or twisted, try some simple exercises within your comfort zone – gently tense your neck muscles as you tilt your head down and up and from side to side, and as you carefully twist your neck from left to right. These exercises will help to strengthen your neck muscles and improve your range of movement.
When to see your GP
See your GP if the pain or stiffness does not seem to be getting better after a few days and you are worried, or if you cannot control the pain with ordinary painkillers. Your GP will examine your neck and ask questions to rule out any serious underlying condition, and may prescribe you a stronger painkiller, such as codeine, to take along with your usual over-the-counter painkillers.
If the pain or stiffness has persisted for a few weeks, ask your GP to refer you to a physiotherapist. There is no agreed scientific evidence that chiropractic or acupuncture are effective treatments for neck pain or a stiff neck.
If your symptoms do not improve, you should ask your GP to consider referring you to a specialist or pain clinic 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. Any attempts to move the neck will cause sharp pain.
Torticollis can occur after long exposure to a cold draught, or after your neck has been in an unusual position. See your GP 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.
Nerve or bone problems in the neck
Sometimes, neck pain may be caused by the general ‘wear and tear’ that occurs on the joints and bones in your neck. This is called cervical spondylosis, and is a type of arthritis.
It is important to note that cervical spondylosis happens naturally as people get older, and it often causes no symptoms. But for an unfortunate few people, the bone changes can cause stiffness in the neck and can sometimes squash the nearby nerves, leading to 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 is not always the result of cervical spondylosis – it may sometimes occur after your neck has been held in an awkward position or twisted, if you have twisted or bent your body abnormally, or after your hand and arm has been vibrating (e.g. after using power tools).
Pain can be controlled by following the advice above, but if your pain has lasted for more than four weeks you may be referred for an MRI scan to investigate the problem with your neck. Talk to your GP about being referred for pain management (see When to see your GP, above).
Last updated: 18 March 2013