When Should I Worry About A Stiff Neck?

By Ben Loomis – DSC_9441.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73875056

It can be uncomfortable to have a stiff neck, but it typically does not cause panic. However, in extreme situations, it could signal the need for a timely medical examination. This page contains several ways to know when a stiff neck may be a sign of a severe medical problem underlying it.

Red Flag Symptoms That Can Accompany a Stiff Neck

If a sore neck is caused by a disorder other than a strain or sprain, there may also be other symptoms as well. In such cases , at least one other symptom will usually develop with or before the painful, tense neck occurs.

Below are “red flag” signs that may suggest that the stiff neck is caused by a possibly severe underlying medical condition:

  • Fever, which likely signals an infection is being fought
  • Headache, especially if it seems different from previous headaches in terms of duration, intensity, or accompanying symptoms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue or unexplained drowsiness
  • Change in mental state, which could include confusion or mood swings
  • Coordination issues, such as dizziness or problems walking or writing
  • Weight loss that is not part of a diet change

These symptoms can encourage the person to seek urgent medical treatment, but they do not necessarily indicate that there is a serious illness or medical emergency.

Most Common Serious Condition with Stiff Neck

Meningitis—The most common serious condition associated with a stiff neck is a bacterial infection in its most dangerous form, which causes the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord to be inflamed.

A fever, headache, and stiff neck (inability to flex the neck forward, sometimes called nuchal rigidity) are usually early signs of bacterial meningitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If two of these signs are present together, a doctor can check them out immediately.

Symptoms of meningitis typically develop within a few days of exposure, and the condition of the person might worsen gradually or rapidly. To have a positive result, early treatment for meningitis is important. Bad effects, such as hearing loss, brain injury, or even death, may result from delayed treatment.

It should be remembered that meningitis is not necessarily present with a stiff neck, and other symptoms can include, among others, nausea, increased sensitivity to light or noisy noises, or confusion.

Others Serious Conditions with Stiff Neck

Other conditions that would rarely cause stiff neck but require immediate medical attention include:

  • Infection. While meningitis is the most common infection that could cause a stiff neck, a painful stiff neck could also result from several other infections.
  • Tumor. A brain tumor may cause a stiff neck, especially if it is located in the cerebellum. The neck can also become sore and/or stiff from a tumor in the cervical spine, such as from cancer.
  • Cervical dystonia. This neurological condition can cause neck muscles to spasm uncontrollably, also known as a form of torticollis. Outside of natural orientation, the head might be twisted or trapped in different places.

This is not a complete list, as many conditions could cause swelling or spasming of the neck tissues , resulting in painful, limited movement.

Are You Looking for Relief From Neck Pain?

Pace Physical Therapy in San Jose, California specializes in non-surgical neck pain relief and recovery therapies.  We pride ourselves on offering the best possible physical therapy available and going above and beyond for our patients. Our highly experienced physical therapist will work with you to improve your function and relieve your pain. We start by assessing the body as a whole. Oftentimes the cause of pain or an injury extends far beyond just the body part or muscle hurting. Without taking a comprehensive look at your entire self, we would be doing you a disservice in fully helping you heal and preventing future limitations. We then move on to fixing your areas of limitation.  Not all diagnoses are created equal. One person with neck pain may have completely different limitations than the next person. Your recovery program needs to be specific to what YOUR body needs and not just the typical exercise program that you can find online. Just because your pain decreases or you can walk longer doesn’t mean that it is enough to get you functioning at the level you want to be. While this often signifies the end of care at your typical PT clinic we don’t stop providing guidance until we help you successfully meet every goal you set for yourself with us on day one. Contact us today to schedule your appointment!