What Causes a Stiff Neck? How Long Will it Last?

Waking up with a stiff, sore neck can be incredibly frustrating. The sharp pain and limited range of motion make it hard to get through your normal routine. You may wonder how long this nuisance will last so you can plan for recovery. Here’s a look at the typical duration of neck stiffness and when to see a doctor.

What Causes a Stiff Neck?

A stiff neck refers to tight, painful muscles in the neck region. Doctors call it acute torticollis or wry neck. It usually results from:

  • Sleeping in an awkward position that strains the neck muscles.
  • Stress or anxiety leading to muscle tension in the neck and shoulders.
  • Poor posture like hunching over a computer that puts strain on the neck.
  • Injury such as whiplash that sprains the neck’s soft tissues.
  • Illness like meningitis or lymphadenitis that causes neck pain and stiffness.

Understanding the underlying cause can help determine how long stiffness may linger.

Duration of Garden Variety Stiff Necks

For otherwise healthy people who wake up with a stiff neck or experience it after sleep, stress or posture issues, relief is usually rapid. Here’s a look at the typical duration:

  • 1-2 days: With rest, heat, massage and pain medication, most simple stiff necks resolve themselves within a couple days at most. Gentle stretches can help work out the kinks.
  • 1 week: It’s common for the dull ache and soreness to linger about a week as the muscles heal. Range of motion usually starts to improve within a few days.
  • 2 weeks: Lingering mild soreness or tenderness may remain up to two weeks after onset of a stiff neck. But significant limitation of motion and acute pain should improve much sooner.
  • 1 month: If severe muscle spasms, pain and stiffness last beyond a month, it warrants medical attention to rule out underlying factors.
  • On and off: Some people experience recurrent episodes of stiff necks, especially if sleep habits, posture or stress levels remain unchanged. Preventative lifestyle adjustments may help.

When to See a Doctor

While garden variety stiff necks pass quickly, these circumstances warrant prompt medical care:

  • Severe stiffness or inability to move the neck after 2-3 days of home treatment
  • Fever, headache, nausea or vomiting along with a stiff neck
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Dizziness or trouble with coordination or balance
  • Stiff neck and confusion after an injury, especially the elderly
  • History of cancer, autoimmune disorder or other chronic illness

These red flags can indicate a more serious problem like meningitis, Lyme disease, arthritis or stroke. Seek emergency care for sudden, severe headaches with a stiff neck.

Finding Relief

To feel better while a stiff neck runs its course:

  • Apply ice or heat packs to relieve pain and loosen muscles.
  • Take OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen or anti-inflammatories.
  • Do gentle neck stretches and exercises to improve mobility.
  • Use a soft neck brace to provide support and rest the muscles.
  • Sleep with a cervical pillow that supports the natural curve of the neck.
  • Get massages to release tension in the neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Use muscle relaxants or prescription pain medication if over-the-counter options fail.

Most stiff necks fade within 7-14 days at most. But severe, persistent stiffness warrants medical evaluation. See your doctor if home remedies don’t deliver relief or other concerning symptoms develop. With rest and conservative treatment, you can get moving comfortably again.