By middle-age, most people would have known about the inconvenience that goes with a stiff neck. Rest assured that it’s not a morbid condition – through the pain might make you think otherwise. It’s usually due to a simple muscle strain or sprain that heals on its own within a few days time.
It is characterized by difficulty in turning the neck in any direction, more so when trying sideway movements. The soreness can extend into the shoulders and the upper arms. In some cases, a consistent headache may also accompany the sore neck pain. The pain is usually worse in the morning or could get worse over the day, depending on the lifestyle habits of the person concerned. It can be caused by sleeping in the wrong way or by sudden jerks during exercising or during an accident.
While most stiff necks are only a matter of short-term annoyance, in some rare cases, they could signal something a little more sinister. In such situations, they might be associated with other symptoms like headaches, nausea/vomiting, fatigue, fever, altered consciousness and difficulty with coordination. This signals a need for an urgent medical evaluation as it denotes a sinister underlying medical condition. These could include meningitis, tumours, cervical dystonia, etc.
In a majority of cases, however, a stiff neck requires simple treatment options, some of which are outlined below:
Treatment begins with resting the neck for a couple of days. This gives time for the injured soft tissues to start healing and the muscle stiffness/spasm to get relieved. During this period avoid movements that involve turning the neck or putting stress on the shoulders. However, don’t overdo the rest either as too much inactivity could lead to muscle weakening.
Cold or heat therapy is good for most cases of muscle stiffness and brings down the inflammation. Applying an ice pack reduces inflammation while applying dry heat improves blood supply and promotes healing. Do it on an alternating basis.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs work best here by reducing inflammation and pain. They are the first treatment of choice.
Your doctor or physical therapist will teach you some basic gentle stretching exercises to ease the stiffness and restore flexibility into your sore neck muscles. That being said, be cautious and stretch your muscles only to what can be tolerated.
Along with stretching, low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking can also help in relieving stiffness and improving oxygen circulation, which in turn promotes healing.
Usually, a combination of these treatments works better for healing.