What Virus Causes a Stiff Neck?

A stiff neck is an extremely common condition that most people will experience at some point in their lives. It is typically characterized by pain and reduced range of motion when turning or bending the neck. While a stiff neck can arise from muscle strains, pinched nerves, or poor posture, it can also be caused by viral infections. Certain viruses are known to frequently cause neck pain and stiffness as one of their primary symptoms.

Some of the most common viral culprits of a stiff neck include:

Influenza – The flu is one of the notorious viruses that can lead to a sore, stiff neck. Influenza causes widespread inflammation that can affect the lymph nodes and muscles surrounding the neck. Moving the neck and head becomes very uncomfortable when the neck muscles are inflamed. The neck stiffness tends to appear 1-2 days after the initial onset of flu symptoms like fever, headache, sore throat, and fatigue.

Meningitis – Meningitis is an infection or inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The stiff neck associated with meningitis is one of its classic hallmarks. Meningitis, whether caused by viruses or bacteria, infects the meninges which causes irritation and swelling. The swelling compresses the neck nerves and restricts neck mobility, resulting in dramatic neck stiffness along with other flu-like symptoms. Viral meningitis tends to produce less severe symptoms compared to the bacterial form.

Measles – Measles is a highly contagious viral respiratory disease marked by fever, cough, runny nose, and the emergence of a widespread maculopapular rash. Before the rash develops, many individuals with measles experience neck pain and extreme neck stiffness. The neck stiffness may become so severe that the infected person cannot touch their chin to their chest. Measles can cause serious complications so any symptoms should be promptly evaluated by a doctor.

Encephalitis – Encephalitis refers to inflammation of the brain tissue often caused by viral infections. The inflammation triggers significant neck stiffness along with headache, fever, confusion, and even seizures or memory loss in some cases. The viruses that most commonly cause viral encephalitis leading to a stiff neck include arboviruses, herpes simplex virus, varicella zoster virus (the virus causing chickenpox and shingles), and rabies viruses.

Mumps – Mumps is a contagious viral disease that typically starts with fever, headache, and loss of appetite followed by the swelling of the salivary glands. The parotid glands on either side of the face are most commonly affected. The swelling and pain can make it very difficult to open the mouth and chew. Along with the swollen glands, mumps also frequently produces stiffness in the neck that may limit its mobility for 1 to 2 weeks until the swelling subsides.

While many viruses can contribute to neck pain and stiffness, a truly severe stiff neck accompanied by high fever, severe headache, or neurological changes should always be urgently evaluated. Meningitis in particular can rapidly become life-threatening if left untreated. Most cases of viral neck stiffness however will resolve over time with rest, pain relief, and gentle neck stretches. But check with your doctor if your stiff neck symptoms do not improve within a week or are associated with other concerning symptoms. Prompt diagnosis and treatment provides the best protection against any dangerous complications.