How to Relieve a Stiff Neck

Posted by Steve Sudell on

Polls and surveys have shown that approximately one in four American adults have experienced some form of neck pain or stiffness in the last two months. Whether that neck and shoulder stiffness occurred upon rousing from sleep or physical exertion during the day, unfortunately, it is a common problem that most adults have to deal with on a frequent basis. Although it may seem like more of an inconvenience, neck stiffness can alter a person’s performance in day-to-day tasks and can make even minor tasks seemingly impossible to accomplish. While, in the vast majority of cases, time and rest are the simplest cures for the recession of pain and stiffness, there are additional things that one can do in order to manage the pain resulting from neck stiffness as well as exercises that can mitigate the severity and duration of such injuries. So, if you are wondering, “How do I relieve a stiff neck?” Look no further. Stop feeling miserable and learn how to relieve your neck pain and stiffness today!

Symptoms of a Stiff Neck

It should be noted that not all stiff necks are the same, they can wildly differ in the intensity of pain, varying from a stiff and uncomfortable ache, to headaches, to a sharp, debilitating pain. More often than not, one side of the neck hurts, especially when the neck is turned in that direction. Quite often, the range of motion will be severely hampered by this pain or stiffness. A person's ability to complete daily tasks, even tasks as simple as rising from bed or driving may be severely diminished depending on how hampered this range of motion has become. In some cases, such undertakings may need to be put on hold until the muscle or joint has healed.

Typical symptoms of a stiff neck can be any of the following:

  • Achy pain and soreness
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Difficulty lifting or gripping objects
  • Grinding, cracking, or popping of bones
  • Headaches
  • Jaw pain
  • Numbness
  • Radiating pain
  • Sharp pain
  • Sleeping issues
  • Stiff neck
  • Tingling
  • Weakness of grip

The most common cases of neck pain such as stiff neck deal with soft tissue problems, which will typically heal with rest after a few days. In such cases, the remedies for a stiff neck, which we will discuss below, should help alleviate the symptoms. However, in cases where the pain is still excruciating after several days, or if you have displayed any red flag symptoms like tingling, numbness, weakness of grip, nausea, vomiting, or fever, then you should see a doctor immediately.

Remedies for a Stiff Neck

The following tips should be helpful for alleviating a common case of a stiff neck:

  • Cervical Traction – Traction of the spine is a standard treatment for neck stiffness. What this does is pull your head away from the neck to expand the vertebrae and reduce compression. A cervical traction device can be used for physical therapy or pain reduction and will lightly stretch the neck, thus reducing pressure on the spine by separating these vertebrae. Such techniques can be fast-acting and very effective at combating either everyday neck stiffness or more severe injuries to the region of the neck.
  • Check your posture – The vast majority of us regularly work hunched over at our desks in front of a computer screen or looking down at our phones, which is a common cause of neck pain.  Both of these positions tend to encourage a slumped posture and creates undue tension since the structural integrity of the neck is out of its ideal weight bearing alignment. When the head is forward, the shoulders tend to hunch and pinch, and the muscles within overexert themselves in response. Slouching with poor posture while staring at your phone or monitor can lead to bad habits, pull your spine out of alignment, or weaken the muscles that should be holding up your head and shoulders. Your head should ideally rest over your shoulders, and those should be held back with your chest slightly extended. If you have grown into the bad habit of poor posture, it may take time, exercise, stretching and constant reminders to fix this problem. However, doing so can be extremely effective at preventing unnecessary back and neck pain. If you have noticed this is an issue, an ergonomic chair or switching to a standing desk might help you avoid slouching. If you improve your neck posture by keeping the spine aligned as it naturally should be, you can reduce the total amount of daily stress you place on your neck.
  • Cold and heat therapy – During the first 48 hours after an injury or flare up, it is wise to only use cold treatment on the injured areas. By applying ice during this initial period, you can reduce inflammation, which prevents the stiffness and pain from worsening. Once this two-day cold period has ended, heat therapy to the general arena can help promote blood flow and encourage muscle healing.
  • Consider the stress in your life - Do you suffer excessive anxiety? Are you regularly dealing with constant stress or pressure? Whether it is related to work, family life, relationships, or other external pressures, anxiety can manifest as tension and stiffness in the neck. When we experience regular stress our bodies' biological response to this is for the muscles to clench and tighten. While this flight or fight mechanism is ideal for life or death situations, it is not a perfect stress reliever since clenched muscles will often result in a painfully stiff neck. If you do suffer from excessive anxiety, perhaps it is wise to examine what areas in your life need to be addressed or re-examined. Activities such as exercise, sex, laughter, acupuncture, meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, and others can be natural stress relievers. If those do not work, speak with your doctor to see if a temporary anti-anxiety medication might help relieve you of the stress that causes neck stiffness and sharp pain.  
  • Low-impact aerobics – While most of these neck pain and stiffness alleviators depend upon the severity of the strain or sprain, typically, low-impact aerobic exercise such as walking, in conjunction with stretching, has been shown to help relieve neck stiffness and lessen chances of muscle spasm. While moving is beneficial, you should avoid jerking or activities that cause pain. Walking also promotes oxygen circulation throughout the spine and soft tissues of the neck, which leads to healing. By exercising the muscles, even indirectly, without overexerting them, you keep the spine mobile and functional and you can help the muscles around the neck to relax. Even gentle exercise can cause the brain to release endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers. Such easy activity can decrease the severity and likelihood of a potential flare-up. When healthy, regular aerobic exercise for 45 minutes a day can help you burn calories and lose harmful weight, thus decreasing pressure on the spine.
  • Over the counter medications – Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work by decreasing inflammation in muscles and are on the of the first treatments for symptoms of chronic neck stiffness or pain. Common NSAIDs include Naproxen, Naprosyn, Ibuprofen, Advil, and Motrin. For more serious cases, speak with your doctor about obtaining a prescribed anti-inflammatory or muscle relaxant, especially for cases of severe pain like a herniated disk.
  • Perform gentle stretching – As soon as you can tolerate the pain, gentle stretching can help loosen the tension in the neck and increase the range of motion. It is wise to ask a physical therapist, chiropractor or doctor for beneficial stretches such as the corner shoulder stretch, or the levator scapulae stretch. Although your initial impulse might be to perform neck circles, studies have illustrated that the slow extension and rotation of the head can stress the cervical spine and can lead to further compression of arteries carrying blood to the brain. Even if your neck is not currently experiencing pain or stiffness, doctors recommend that you stretch your neck and shoulder muscles before exercising them, especially when lifting weights in order to avoid injury. There are several forms of yoga and stretching routines that are fantastic for loosening up your limbs and muscles.  
  • Rest the muscles – For at least the first two days, it is wise to allow the muscle tissue time to heal without being used, especially for strenuous activity. Upon provoking trigger points,  our bodies send us pain signals such as muscle spasms or muscle tension as a way of telling us that the area experiencing pain is not healthy and needs to be rested. As with most injuries, if you do not listen to what the muscles are telling you, you might only exacerbate the problem leading to muscle spasms or an even more serious injury. So, if you swim, bike, golf or do other activities that involve the regular use of the neck, it might be wise to take a break from those for a few days.
  • See a chiropractor – A licensed chiropractor has been trained to deal with subluxation, when the joint(s) become compressed, stretched, misaligned, fixated, and hinders the nerves communication with the brain. They have been thoroughly educated on how the parts of the body are intended to work together and will adjust or realign the spine in a specific, intentional way. While many people try to self-adjust their neck or have someone stand on their back or crack their back, such actions can lead to further damage by moving an area with weakened ligaments and muscles. Chiropractic adjustments to the neck and spine should never cause pain, and when done correctly, there should be minimal force required to realign the bones. Even when healthy, monthly or quarterly maintenance care should be done to ensure that your body is in its proper alignment.
  • See a massage therapist - One of the optimal ways to of reducing pain and tension in the neck is massage therapy. This kneading of the muscles can help them to release tension and toxins, which all too often lead to neck stiffness. Massage therapists have the skill and experience necessary to help you loosen up a stiff neck. When you book your massage, be sure to communicate to them that you have or have had issues with your neck. For stress relief and muscle tension, a Swedish Massage may be in order. If the neck pain goes to a deeper issue, you may benefit from a deep tissue massage. By finding tension and trigger points that may be causing the pain, a massage therapist can use focused kneading to work out knots and chronic tension and to improve blood circulation to those areas.
  • Sleep Correctly - When it comes to resting the muscles of the neck, one of the things you can do to make sure that you are resting them correctly is to avoid sleeping on it the wrong way. If your neck is held in an awkward position overnight, it can lead to a pinched nerve and a stiff neck. Doctors and chiropractors advise that you avoid sleeping on your stomach since this position is unnatural for the spine, especially for an entire night. The ideal position is on either the side or the back with a pillow in between your legs.
  • Increase your neck strength – While this method may not be an immediate remedy for a stiff neck, it is wise to build up the muscles in your back and neck. When these muscles are strong and flexible, they are better able to help you hold a proper posture and are less likely to spasm. By safely and adequately exercising the areas around the neck, you build a solid support and foundation for your head. Work on your flexibility and maintain neck strength and you will prevent future injury, especially from physical exertion.

Conclusion

A stiff and painful neck can ruin more than just your day, especially if you do not address it immediately. If it was the result of an injury from a fall or crash, consider what underlying issues may have caused it to arise. Once you have diagnosed the cause, use several of these tips in order to help relieve you of your stiff neck.

Sources

“Epidural Steroid Injections, Conservative Treatment, or Combination Treatment for Cervical Radicular Pain: A Multicenter, Randomized, Comparative-effectiveness Study” https://insights.ovid.com/crossref?an=00000542-201411000-00025

“Implementation of neck/shoulder exercises for pain relief among industrial workers: A randomized controlled trial” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3188479/

“What Works to Relieve Neck Pain?” https://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/neck-pain/what-works-relieve-neck-pain