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No one enjoys having a stiff neck, but it happens to everyone at one point or another. Once pain develops in the neck, treating it becomes a top priority and the good news is, it doesn't usually require a doctor. Many at-home remedies for neck stiffness exist. The exception is pain that comes on suddenly and along with other symptoms. This kind of neck stiffness or ache should be discussed with a doctor.

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Symptoms

A stiff neck can cause varying discomfort ranging from slightly distracting stiffness to extreme pain. Typical symptoms include soreness and difficulty turning the head from side-to-side. Other complaints include headache and pain in the arm, shoulder, or neck. The tightness can also force the person to turn their entire torso to look side to side.

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Causes

There is often a simple reason for having a stiff neck, though the causes are diverse — anything from sleeping wrong to heavy lifting. Sleeping without a supportive pillow can strain the muscles along the neck and shoulder, causing discomfort the next day. Any repetitive activity can make the neck stiff, while emotional stress may cause painful knots in the neck and back.

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Injury

Neck injuries are quite common and can happen while playing sports or being jerked around in an accident or fall. Muscle sprains, strains, and injuries present with stiffness and pain in the neck and back. It's best to see a doctor anytime there is a neck injury involved; they may want to perform further tests.

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Prevention

Some everyday habits can cause neck stiffness and small changes can help prevent the issue. Consider using an earpiece on the phone rather than craning the neck to hold it to your shoulder. Avoid looking down for too long, especially while using a cell phone or computer — an issue known as "text neck." Consider switching your daily purse or bag to a backpack, as the uneven distribution of weight on the shoulder can strain the neck muscles.

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Treatment

Depending on the cause, a stiff neck is mostly treatable at home. Anytime a person has sudden stiffness accompanied by other symptoms like headache, fever, or muscle aches, they should seek medical attention. Otherwise, a little care and mindfulness at home can make a world of difference in treating neck discomfort.

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Apply Ice

Using an ice pack may help with strain and inflammation from minor irritation. Cold acts as a numbing agent, providing temporary relief from discomfort, and is most beneficial within the first two days of experiencing stiffness. Applying ice is as simple as holding a bag of frozen veggies — or a first-aid ice pack — on the area for 20 minutes at a time. Be sure to take a break for half-hour between icing and always place a cloth between the icepack and the skin to prevent frostbite.

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Heating Pad

Some people prefer to alternate between ice and heat to help with a stiff neck. To benefit from both hot and cold therapies, try icing for twenty minutes, rest for a half-hour, then repeat with heat. Heating pads are an excellent way to safely apply heat, while a hot bath can also soothe sore muscles, as long as you're mindful of how you position in the tub.

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Stretching

Stretching the neck may help with stiffness, as long as the movements are slow and gentle. Never move the neck too quickly, as this could cause further damage and slow recovery. Instead, turn the head from side to side, slowly and gently stopping and pulling back when discomfort progresses to pain. Rolling the shoulders forward and backward may also give some relief.

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Pain Relievers

Sometimes an ice pack isn't enough, in which case, over-the-counter medications may help. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce inflammation and improve symptoms by blocking pain for a while. When taking painkillers, it is important to remember that they are not healing the body, so you still must be careful not to tax the sore muscles. Anyone with pre-existing health conditions should check with a doctor before taking these or any other non-prescription medication.

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Stress Management

While it is impossible to avoid stress altogether, managing stressful situations can help prevent neck stiffness. Chronic stress may worsen neck pain and cause knots in the neck, shoulders, and back. Meditation, yoga, and other stress-relieving activities are excellents way to improve your mood and mental state while loosening tight muscles.

a woman relaxing David Sacks / Getty Images

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.