A stiff neck can be painful and interfere with your daily activities, as well as your ability to get a good night’s sleep. In 2010, more than 17 percent of women and more than 12 percent of men reported some type of neck pain and stiffness.
That number is rising with the prevalent use of mobile devices and computers, which compel people to crane their necks at awkward angles. In fact, looking down at your phone, laptop, or other devices is the most common cause of neck strain. This hunched position puts a strain on the muscles and soft tissues of your neck.
Other causes may include:
- poor posture
- clenched jaw
- repetitive neck motion
- neck or spinal injury
We’ll look at ways to help relieve neck stiffness and pain as well as methods to prevent the pain.
Many times, you can prevent a stiff neck with some lifestyle changes and ergonomic workplace tools. Prevention may also mean breaking some bad habits, like poor posture. In addition, regular exercise can strengthen your muscles and make them less likely to be strained or injured.
Also, not smoking or quitting smoking can help prevent neck pain. Quitting can be difficult. Talk to your doctor to create a quit-smoking plan that is right for you.
Create an ergonomic workplace
Many people work at a computer desk for eight hours each day. This can contribute to a stiff neck, as well as other ailments. Here are some ways to prevent a stiff neck at work:
- Adjust your chair into a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor and your knees a bit lower than your hips.
- Use ergonomic posture while sitting, with your back straight and your arms level to the desk.
- Adjust your computer so that it’s at eye level.
- Use an ergonomic keyboard and mouse.
- Stand up to stretch and move every hour.
Limit how long you look at a smartphone
Constantly looking down at your phone pulls on your neck muscles and puts a constant strain on them. If you have to use your smartphone often, try some of these tips to reduce your neck strain:
- Hold your phone at eye level.
- Don’t hold your phone between your shoulder and your ear.
- Use earbuds or headphones.
- Take a break from your phone hourly.
- After using your phone, stretch to relax your muscles.
Don’t drive for long periods at a time
Just like sitting at your desk all day, sitting behind the wheel of your car can affect your neck. If you have to drive for long periods, here are some tips for preventing a stiff neck:
- Take breaks to stand up and stretch.
- Set an alarm to remind you to check your posture while driving.
- Set your seat in a position that provides you the most support and puts you in good posture.
- Don’t text and drive. It’s illegal, dangerous, and bad for your neck to be repetitively looking up and down from your phone to the road.
Periodically stopping to stretch is a great way to help prevent getting a stiff neck. Stretches include:
- Roll your shoulders back and forth.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together several times.
- Slowly move your ear to your shoulder on each side.
- Slowly turn your head from side to side.
Change your sleep position
The position you sleep in at night can also affect your neck. Sleeping on your side or your back puts less strain on your neck than sleeping on your stomach. When you sleep on your stomach, you’re forcing your neck to strain for long periods of time and this can cause pain and stiffness.
If you sleep on your side for all or part of the night, you can buy a pillow with neck support.
If you have a painful, stiff neck, you can try several remedies to reduce the pain and lessen the stiffness. Many of these remedies can also be used for prevention.
Apply heat or ice
Apply ice for 20 minutes a few times a day to help relieve neck inflammation. You can also alternate between applying ice and heat. Taking a warm bath or shower or using a heating pad may also help.
Take OTC pain relievers
Over-the-counter pain relievers like the following can help reduce the pain:
- ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
- naproxen sodium (Aleve)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
Stretch but avoid sudden movements
Stretching can help relieve the pain and stiffness, and prevent it in the future. It’s important to stretch gently and slowly. Sudden movements can cause more inflammation, pain, and a more serious injury. Apply a heating pad or take a warm shower before stretching.
- Roll your shoulders backward and then forward in a circle.
- Press your shoulder blades together and hold the position for a few seconds, then repeat.
- Slowly turn your head from side to side.
Get a massage
Massage by a trained practitioner can help to loosen and stretch your neck and back muscles.
Acupuncture involves inserting needles into specific pressure points on your body. While more scientific research is needed to identify proven benefits, acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years in Eastern medicine. Visit only a certified practitioner with sterile needles.
Consider chiropractic care
A licensed chiropractor can manipulate muscles and joints to provide pain relief. This type of therapy can be uncomfortable or painful to some. You can discuss your comfort with a doctor.
Limit physical activity
If your neck stiffness and pain started after performing physical activity, you should limit that activity until the stiffness resolves. However, you should limit heavy lifting and activities that may aggravate your neck muscles any time you have neck pain.
Stress can cause you to tense the muscles in your neck. Reducing stress can help treat and prevent neck pain and stiffness. You may choose to reduce stress in a variety of ways, including:
- listening to music
- taking a vacation or break, even if it’s just for a few hours away from the office or a stressful environment
- doing something you enjoy
Exercise can help strengthen your muscles to prevent injuries. Exercise can also help you to improve your posture to relieve and prevent neck stiffness. It’s also a great way to relieve stress that may be causing your stiff neck.
Adjust your sleep environment
Adjusting your sleep environment can help relieve a stiff neck. Ways to change your sleep environment include:
- getting a firmer mattress
- using a neck pillow
- sleeping only on your back or side
- relaxing before going to sleep
- wearing a mouth guard if you’re grinding your teeth at night
If your neck pain interferes with your regular daily activities, you should see your doctor. Other reasons you should seek medical care are:
- pain started after an injury or car collision
- pain that spreads down your arms or legs
- weakness in your arms, hands, or legs
- headache alongside pain
These additional symptoms could be a sign of a more serious injury to your neck, like a herniated disk, pinched nerve, bulging disk, or arthritis.
Most of the time, a stiff neck with minor pain can be treated at home with ice, heat, and stretching. If your pain does not subside after a few days or you have additional symptoms, you should see a doctor.