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How to treat a stiff neck at home (and when to see a doctor)

If you’ve ever woken up with a stiff, sore neck, you know how painful and distracting it can be in everyday life. So, how can you prevent or treat a stiff neck? Leland Gyr, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician, shares his advice.

What are the most common causes of a stiff neck?

Dr. Gyr says the most common causes of a stiff neck include:

How to treat a stiff or sore neck at home

“A stiff neck is typically easily treated at home,” says Dr. Gyr.

He recommends the following:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication, such as naproxen or ibuprofen

  • Topical anti-inflammatory gel, such as Diclofenac

  • Heat or ice (generally, you can choose whichever feels better, he says)

  • Gentle stretching or yoga

  • Rest

How to prevent neck stiffness and soreness

Yoga is good for prevention if you do it daily or a few times a week,” says Dr. Gyr. “It can prevent a lot of modern-day maladies.”

He also suggests:

  • Staying active to maintain your range of motion, such as walking, jogging, cycling or rowing.

  • Strengthening your neck and shoulder muscles through resistance training.

  • Optimizing your work desk setup to maintain good posture.

  • Seeing your primary care provider if pain and stiffness persist. They may recommend physical therapy, steroid injections or other treatment options.

Can a stiff neck be a sign of something serious?

Dr. Gyr recommends seeking immediate medical care if you experience neck pain or stiffness accompanied by:

  • Neurologic deficits, like weakness, tingling or numbness in your neck, arms or hands.

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

  • A severe headache, which could be related to meningitis or an infection in the lining of the spinal cord and brain.

  • Eye abnormalities.

You should also get medical attention if your neck pain and stiffness:

  • Are severe.

  • Occur after an accident, such as a car wreck or a fall.

  • Don’t respond to at-home treatments.

  • Don’t improve after a week.

When to seek medical care for a stiff neck

“I definitely recommend contacting your primary care provider if your neck pain doesn’t respond to at-home care,” he says. “If you have neurological symptoms, go to the emergency department.”

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