Woke Up With a Stiff Neck? How to Treat and Prevent It

We’ve all experienced the following scenario: you wake up one morning, only to find out that your neck is all sore and achy. When you try to turn to the side, you feel excruciating pain and realize that your neck is frozen in one position. But having a stiff neck isn’t just painful, it also restricts your movements and makes daily activities, like driving, dangerous.
In this article, we’ll explain how you can reduce your chances of getting a stiff neck and how to reduce the symptoms when it does occur.

What Causes a Stiff Neck?

Stiff Neck pain in neck woman
An episode of neck stiffness is often sudden, and you will surely be wondering, what did you do wrong? Well, there are many things involved, and factors like your posture, level of activity, previous injuries, age, and even stress definitely play a big role.
In most cases, neck stiffness occurs when the neck muscles and tendons are overused, overstretched, or strained. For example, looking down at your phone, sitting in a hunched position in front of the computer, or sleeping in an awkward position can all distort the natural neck posture. Hence, these bad habits can create tension and pain.
However, in some cases, neck stiffness can point to a more serious issue, namely:
  • Arthritis of the neck is also known as cervical spondylosis. This degenerative condition causes pain and stiffness in the neck, especially when you're staying in the same position for a long time. Other symptoms include headaches, balance problems, and weakness or numbness in the hands and arms.
  • Whiplash is a more severe type of neck injury that occurs after sudden or sharp movements, such as a car accident or injury. Other symptoms of whiplash include headaches, back and shoulder pain, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, memory loss, and a prickling or burning sensation in the neck.
  • Meningitis is an infection of the membrane that lines the brain and the spinal cord. This condition is a medical emergency and could be life-threatening. Like any infection, meningitis causes a fever that is accompanied by headaches, nausea, confusion, irritability, sensitivity to light, and being extremely sleepy or unable to wake up.

In this article, we will show you how to prevent and treat neck stiffness brought about by minor neck injuries, as all three of the additional causes require professional care.

How to Prevent Neck Stiffness

If you notice that neck stiffness and pain is a recurrent issue, it’s likely because of poor posture, a lack of exercise, and bad habits. Apart from the obvious, i.e. exercising and stretching your neck muscles regularly, these are the beneficial daily habits and hints that will help you prevent neck stiffness.

1. Stop and stretch when you’re driving for long periods of time

Stiff Neck man driving

Sitting behind the wheel for long periods of time can strain your neck. If you’re planning a long drive, it’s mandatory to take breaks, stand up, and stretch your neck every hour or so. You can even set an alarm on your phone to help you remember that it’s time for a break. Also, make sure that you’re sitting in a comfortable and neutral position while driving.

2. Practice good posture during the day
Our everyday activities can either affect or protect our neck health, and we’re sure that we all wish to stick to the latter option. This is why you should avoid looking down while reading books, scrolling on the smartphone, sitting at the computer, and even watching TV.

When you're looking down, all these activities can strain and stretch out the neck muscles. Therefore, make it a rule to read or use devices at eye level, set up your computer desk ergonomically, and take frequent breaks.

3. Be careful when carrying bags

It doesn’t matter if you’re walking around with a heavy bag on the same shoulder all the time or just overestimated how many shopping bags you can pick up one time, carrying heavy loads can strain the muscles of the neck. Using backpacks instead of a purse or briefcase can help distribute the weight more evenly and prevents injuries and neck strain.
Stiff Neck man putting bag into car

When carrying shopping bags, take fewer bags at a time and make sure you’re using your legs and not the upper body to pick them up.

4. Adjust your sleeping position

If you woke up with a stiff neck in the morning, chances are that your sleeping position is to blame. Stomach sleepers are the highest risk of neck stiffness and pain, as this sleep position puts a lot of strain on the neck muscles.

Try to switch to side-sleeping instead, and read our article about the best sleeping positions to do it right. Your mattress or pillow may be too soft, too, so make sure to consult a professional to help you find at least a pillow with just enough support.

5. Use headphones or an earpiece to talk on the phone

Are you one of those people who like to free up their hands while talking on the phone by keeping the phone between the shoulder and the head? If so, then we found the habit that’s making your neck so sore and stiff. Simply connect your phone to a pair of headphones or an earpiece, and your problem will be solved.

How to Restore Neck Flexibility and Reduce Pain

Here’s what to do with a stiff neck when it’s already too late for prevention and you have a problem on your hands. First and foremost, understand that the problem will probably stick around for a day or two, and it’s best if you don’t drive or do heavy physical activities at this time because your neck is injured.

A gentle and mindful approach goes a long way in releasing all that tension, helping with the pain, and improving neck flexibility. Here are a few tips:

1. Apply a heat or ice compress

Stiff Neck woman applying heat pad on neck

Using heat and ice can help relieve inflammation in the neck. It works the best within 48 hours after the pain first started. Simply take an ice pack or a heating pad and apply it over the affected area for up to 20 minutes.

If you don’t have these items, you can use a bag of ice or frozen peas wrapped in a towel in place of an ice pack, or a plastic bottle filled with warm water instead of a heating pad. You can repeat the process every 20-30 minutes.

2. Use over-the-counter painkillers

Even if you’re feeling more stiffness than pain per se, it’s a good idea to take a painkiller that belongs to the NSAID group of pain medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or naproxen sodium (Aleve). This is because these medications have an anti-inflammatory effect that will help clear up the neck stiffness faster.

3. Take a bath
Stiff Neck bathtub

A major cause of neck stiffness and pain is stress. Therefore, engaging in any relaxing activity - watching movies, listening to music, meditation - will usually help your neck pain and stiffness. We recommend a warm bath, as it combines relaxation with the application of heat.

4. Avoid using a collar to immobilize a stiff neck

It’s best to continue with your daily activities and avoid putting on a collar to immobilize the neck unless advised otherwise by your doctor. The reason why is because a little stretch and movement usually help your neck recover more quickly.

5. Stretch gently

Once your pain isn’t very sharp anymore, you can start doing a few gentle neck stretches. Make sure to stretch gently and slowly, as this will reduce the pain and stiffness as opposed to sudden movements that will only cause more inflammation. Here are a few examples of stretches:

-Bring your shoulder blades together a few times, then roll your shoulders from front to back.
-Try to slowly turn the head from one side to another, but without forcing yourself through any pain.
-You can also try acupressure to reduce the pain. Read all about it in our article 5 Acupressure Points for Neck Pain.


6. Gentle aerobic exercises

Stiff Neck man walking a dog

As we mentioned above, you should probably avoid doing any serious exercise for the first few days if you’re suffering from neck stiffness. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t move altogether, though. In fact, engaging in low-impact exercise helps alleviate muscle tension and stiffness. Walking, biking or yoga are just a few examples of such safe and helpful activities.

When to Seek Medical Help

Usually, following the above-mentioned tips can help relieve neck pain and stiffness in a few days. If the symptoms continue or worsen after a few days and your neck pain interferes with your daily activities, you should consult your healthcare provider.

You should also go to the doctor immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms that accompany neck stiffness: 

  • You feel pain, weakness, or numbness in your arms or legs
  • Persistent headaches
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Fever
  • The pain started after a car accident, fall, or injury.

We wish you good health!

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