Stiff Neck and Headache: Causes and Treatment

Image source:

Complaining a stiff neck needn’t mean you have a complicated medical issue. Of course, this is a possibility but it is not the norm. In fact, studies show that stiff neck and headaches are a common issue across the world.

In most cases, you can treat a stiff neck at home. However, it is important to be aware of the causes and potential treatment options. This will help you to decide when to treat it yourself and when to visit the doctor or click here.

Understanding the Neck

Image source:

Your neck has seven cervical vertebrae which form the base elements of your spine. They surround your spinal cord, protecting it from impacts. Between the vertebrae you’ll find discs which allow movement of the neck, the nerves pass next to this.

Your neck also consists of muscles, arteries, veins, the lymph glands, thyroid glands, and your larynx/trachea. An issue with any of these or the surrounding area can cause neck stiffness. It’s common to develop shoulder pain and stiffness, along with a headache, when you have neck stiffness. This is because the areas are all connected.

The Cause Of Stiff Neck & Headaches

In most cases, the headache is simply a result of neck pain. That’s why doctors will concentrate on neck pain first. If resolving this doesn’t cure the headache, further investigation will be required.


Image source:

Potentially the most obvious cause of a stiff neck is trauma. You’ll probably have either experienced or know someone who has had whiplash. It’s damage to your neck muscles as a result of sudden changes in direction. That’s akin to the forces in a car crash which push your head forward and then back very quickly.

The good news is that this is usually just muscular strain and it will heal with time. Your doctor or physio may prescribe pain meds and specific exercises to speed up the recovery process.

For more information about trauma disorders, you can always read articles from this website.

Strenuous Activity

This is another common cause of a stiff neck and a resulting headache. It happens when you do something strenuous that places strain on your neck, such as moving heavy furniture.

It’s most likely that you’ll have strained the levator scapulae muscle as it is susceptible to injury, it connects the cervical spine to the shoulder and can be subjected to significant forces.

Lifting anything heavy places strain on the shoulders which can directly influence the cervical spine through the levator scapulae muscle. It’s important to be aware of it, if you strain it you’ll have to let it recover naturally which should take approximately one week.

Every Day Occurrences

Image source:

There are a variety of everyday occurrences that can cause a stiff neck. These include sleeping at a funny angle which places your neck in an unusual or awkward position. Turning your head side to side repeatedly can also cause it, as can slouching in front of a computer. Perhaps one of the most common modern conditions is ‘text neck’, a result of constantly looking down at a phone.

It can also be a result of cradling a phone between your neck and shoulder or because you are constantly stressed. High levels of stress and anxiety cause tension o build in the neck which places strain on your neck muscles.

Underlying Disorders

The above scenarios are the most likely issue with your neck. However, there are times when your neck strain and headache are a symptom of another issue. Specifically, it can indicate an issue with the cervical spine. Potential issues include:

Cervical Herniated Disc

This is when the protective outer layer of any disc in the cervical spine is damaged or missing. In effect, the softer inner tissue can leak through the disc. This creates compression in the spinal cord and inflames the tissues within the same vicinity. The result is pressure on your nerves which causes pain. The stiff neck is caused by the herniated disc which prevents you from moving your neck in the usual way.

This issue will require monitoring by your doctor. It can heal by itself but may require surgical intervention.

Cervical Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a weakening of the bones in the spine. It causes the joints between vertebrae to breakdown. The result is spinal stenosis and bone spurs which can become painful.

This can be a difficult issue to treat as the damage is already done. Your doctor may need to fuse vertebrae together to eliminate the issue and reduce the stiffness and pain.

Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

Discs generally lose hydration as they age, this causes them to shrink which is part of the reason older people actually lose height. The shrinkage places additional pressure on the surrounding joints and soft tissues, including muscles and ligaments. Understandably the extra stress causes your muscles and ligaments to become inflamed which causes your neck to be stiff and painful.


It is possible to get an infection in your neck or in the spinal fluid. This can result in a stiff neck. Coupled with a persistent headache and flu-like symptoms it can also be a sign of Meningitis. IF this is the case you should seek urgent medical attention.


Another issue that could cause neck stiffness and headaches is a tumor. The only way to know this is the issue will be for the doctor to perform a scan. They can then advise on the best treatment plan.

The Bottom Line

By far the most common issue that causes a stiff neck is simply muscle or ligament strain. You can often work this out yourself by thinking about the activities you have been doing.
A visit to the physio will help to relieve the stiffness and give you an array of accidents to reduce the risk of it reoccurring.

Only in serious cases or when the stiff neck and headache has been present for several days should you consider consulting a doctor to investigate further. Thankfully, in most cases, it is simply an inconvenience.