Neck pain or a stiff neck is a common problem. The pain and stiffness usually gets better after a few days, and is not a sign of a more serious neck problem or underlying condition. You can get a painful or stiff neck if you sleep in an awkward position, use a computer keyboard for a prolonged period of time, or even from sitting in a draught. However, there is often no obvious cause of neck pain and doctors will refer to it as ‘non-specific’. This page covers:
- when to see a doctor
- a twisted or locked neck
- nerve or bone problems in your neck
- Back pain, shoulder pain and whiplash (neck injury) are covered in separate topics.
When to see a doctor
See a doctor if the pain or stiffness does not improve after a few days and you are worried, or if you cannot control the pain using ordinary painkillers. Your doctor will examine your neck and ask some questions to help rule out any serious underlying damage or condition. If you have had neck pain or stiffness for a few weeks, your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist. If your symptoms are particularly severe or do not improve, your doctor may consider giving injections.
A twisted or locked neck
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. Torticollis can occur after your neck has been in an unusual position. See a doctor for treatment, and to rule out any serious underlying cause. Acute torticollis can take up to a week to get better, but usually only lasts 24-48 hours. However, make an appointment to see a doctor if your symptoms persist for more than 48 hours. Your doctor will examine your neck and may recommend further treatment.
Nerve or bone problems in the neck
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 does not 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. Neck pain caused by a squashed nerve is known as cervical radiculopathy. It can sometimes occur after your neck has been held in an awkward position, after twisting or bending your body abnormally, or following the use of vibrating power tools. If your symptoms persist, you may be referred for an MRI scan.