Also known as nuchal rigidity which derives from the Middle English word for “neck” or “upper spin,” a stiff neck is an accurately descriptive term for stiffness, tightness, rigidness and tautness of the muscles that support the neck over the shoulders and the head above it.
Since the muscles of the neck and its bones are the supportive structures which carry the full weight of the head and control its every movement, a stiff neck also describes a condition of the neck that causes inflexibility and thus makes bending, turning or moving of the head difficult and painful.
Depending on its severity, the pain of a stiff neck can range from mild to excruciating. Likewise, the pain of a stiff neck can be experienced through the process of a specific set of movements of the head or even when movements are not attempted such as when the head and the neck are at complete rest. The pain of a stiff neck can be described as a continuous ache, a sporadic sharp pain or a spasm; and it can be localized and confined in the neck area or it can travel down into the back and the arms or up into the head.
The causes for a stiff neck are wide and varied and they are grouped as external and internal (pathological) causes. The most common among them are:
Included in the group of the external causes are: low quality or poor condition of the pillow and/or the mattress, a sharp or sudden turn of the head, emotional and/or mental stress and a whiplash caused by a car accident, a fall or a blow to the area neck or head area.
Included in the group of the pathological causes are various inflammations such as cervical arthritis (inflammation in the upper spine), encephalitis (inflammation in the brain), meningitis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain), ankylosing spondylitis (inflammation of the upper vertebrae), rheumatoid arthritis, subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding into the space that surrounds the brain), a deformity of the neck that is known as torticollis and poor posture.
A stiff neck can be debilitating enough to get in the way of performing daily activities. Thankfully, there are things that can be done to relieve it:
- (1) Massage. Whether self administered or dispensed by a professional such as a physical therapist, a massage therapist, a chiropractor, etc.; a good massage promotes increased blood flow and thus brings on healing and relieve.
- (2) Exercise. Very precise and targeted exercises can help loosen stiffness and melt away tension — thus resulting in relief which also encourages healing.
- (3) Compresses. Applying hot and cold compresses increases the circulatory system and thus also promotes faster healing.
- (4) Alternative Therapy. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture or acupressure, various relaxation techniques, occupational therapy, stress management therapy and yoga can all help expedite the natural healing process while also easing the stress which caused the stiff neck to begin with.
- (5) Topicals. Application of topical (cream, ointment, location, oil) muscles relaxants and/or painkillers provides temporary relief while the affected area goes through the natural process of self healing.
- (6) Oral medications. Over-the-counter and prescribed oral medications such as pain killers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can prove to be very helpful.
- (7) Cervical collar. Cervical collars can be worn to help support the head while the neck is healing itself and they have, in fact, been prove effective.
- (8) Surgery. In extreme cases, surgery and/or traction may be necessary to relieve a stiff neck when all other treatments have failed.