Health A to Z
Neck pain or a stiff neck is a common problem which usually gets better after a few days or weeks. It's rarely a sign of anything serious.
You can often get a painful or stiff neck if you:
Anxiety and stress can also sometimes cause tension in your neck muscles, leading to neck pain.
This page covers:
For most types of general neck pain, the advice is to carry on with your normal daily activities, keep active, and take painkillers to relieve the symptoms.
These steps may help you to manage your pain:
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has more information about neck exercises.
You should see your GP if:
Your GP will examine your neck and ask some questions to help identify any underlying condition. They may also prescribe a stronger painkiller, such as codeine, to take with your usual over-the-counter painkillers.
If you've had neck pain or stiffness for a month or more, your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.
If your symptoms are particularly severe or don't improve, your GP may consider prescribing more powerful medication or referring you to a pain specialist for further treatment.
Read about living with pain for further information and advice about persistent pain.
Some people suddenly wake up one morning to find their neck twisted to one side and stuck in that position. This is known as acute torticollis and is caused by injury to the neck muscles.
The exact cause of acute torticollis is unknown, but it may be caused by bad posture, sleeping without adequate neck support, or carrying heavy unbalanced loads (for example, carrying a heavy bag with one arm).
Acute torticollis can take up to a week to get better, but it usually only lasts 24 to 48 hours.
Sometimes neck pain is caused by the "wear and tear" that occurs to the bones and joints in your neck. This is a type of arthritis called cervical spondylosis.
Cervical spondylosis occurs naturally with age. It doesn't always cause symptoms, although in some people the bone changes can cause neck stiffness.
Nearby nerves can also be squashed, resulting in pain that radiates from the arms, pins and needles, and numbness in the hands and legs.
Most cases improve with treatment in a few weeks.
Whiplash is a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.
It often occurs after a sudden impact such as a road traffic accident. The vigorous movement of the head overstretches and damages the tendons and ligaments in the neck.
As well as neck pain and stiffness, whiplash can cause:
Neck pain caused by a squashed nerve is known as cervical radiculopathy. It's usually caused by one of the discs between the bones of the upper spine (vertebrae) splitting open and the gel inside bulging outwards on to a nearby nerve.
The condition is more common in older people because your spinal discs start to lose their water content as you get older, making them less flexible and more likely to split.
The pain can sometimes be controlled with painkillers and by following the advice below, although surgery may be recommended for some people.
Your neck pain may have a more serious cause if it's persistent and getting progressively worse, or you have additional symptoms, such as:
A serious cause is more likely if you've recently had a significant injury – for example, a car accident or a fall – or you have a history of cancer or conditions that weaken your immune system, such as HIV.
See your GP if you're concerned.
You may find the following advice helpful in preventing neck pain: