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Stiff Neck Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

stiff neck is typically characterized by soreness and difficulty moving the neck – especially when trying to turn the head to the side. A stiff neck may also be accompanied by a headache, shoulder pain and/or arm pain, and cause the individual to turn the entire body as opposed to the neck when trying to look sideways or backwards.

Symptoms typically last for a couple of days or a week and may prompt neck pain that ranges from mildly painful but annoying to extremely painful and limiting. While there are a few instances in which neck stiffness is a sign of a serious medical condition, most episodes of acute neck stiffness or pain heal quickly due to the durable and recuperative nature of the cervical spine.

The most common causes of a stiff neck include, but are not limited to, the following:

Muscle Strain or Sprain
By far the most common cause of a stiff neck is a muscle sprain or muscle strain, particularly to the levator scapula muscle. Located at the back and side of the neck, the levator scapula muscle connects the cervical spine (the neck) with the shoulder. This muscle is controlled by the third and fourth cervical nerves (C3, C4).

The levator scapula muscle may be strained or sprained throughout the course of many common, everyday activities, such as:

      • Sleeping in a position that strains the neck muscles
      • Sports injuries that strain the neck
      • Any activity that involves repeatedly turning the head from side to side, such as swimming the front crawl stroke
      • Poor posture, such as slouching while viewing the computer monitor
      • Excessive stress, which can lead to tension in the neck
      • Holding the neck in an abnormal position for a long period, such as cradling a phone between the neck and shoulder.

For treatment and self-care of stiff neck symptoms due to muscle strain, see Neck Strain: Causes and Remedies.

Meningitis / Infection
A stiff neck, in conjunction with a high fever, headache, nausea or vomiting, sleepiness and other symptoms, may be indicative of meningitis, a bacterial inflection that causes the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord to be inflamed. Other infections can also cause stiff neck symptoms, such as meningococcal disease, an infection in the cervical spine. Any time a stiff neck is accompanied by a fever it is advisable to seek immediate medical attention to check for these possibilities.

Cervical Spine Disorders
Many problems in the cervical spine can lead to neck stiffness. The stiffness can result as a reaction to the underlying disorder in the cervical spine. For example, a cervical herniated disc or cervical osteoarthritis can lead to neck stiffness, as the structures and nerve pathways in the cervical spine are all interconnected and a problem in any one area can lead to muscle spasm and/or muscle stiffness.

 

When to see a Doctor

As a general rule, it is advisable to seek medical attention if the stiff neck symptoms do not subside after one week. Immediate medical attention is recommended if neck stiffness is noted after a traumatic injury, or if there are additional troublesome symptoms, such as a high fever.

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Back Pack Safety

Each school year millions of children walk to, from, and around school carrying backpacks filled with books and materials. Parents should be aware that overly stressing the back with a heavy backpack could cause back pain in their child.

Following a few guidelines and using common sense can help avoid this type of back pain.

How Kids’ Backs Respond to Backpacks

Using a backpack allows a child to carry a number of schoolbooks and items in a practical way, distributing the heavy load across the strong back and shoulder muscles. The risk, however, is overload, which can strain the back, neck or shoulders.

The back will compensate for any load applied to it for an extended period of time. A heavy weight carried in backpacks can:

  • Distort the natural curves in the middle and lower backs, causing muscle strain and irritation to the spine joints and the rib cage
  • Lead to rounding of the shoulders
  • Cause a person to lean forward, reducing balance and making it easier to fall

Habitually carrying backpacks over one shoulder will make muscles strain to compensate for the uneven weight. The spine leans to the opposite side, stressing the middle back, ribs and lower back more on one side than the other. This type of muscle imbalance can cause muscle strain, muscle spasm and back pain in the short term and speed the development of back problems later in life if not corrected.

A heavy backpack can pull on the neck muscles, contributing to headache, shoulder pain, lower back pain, and/or neck and arm pain.

Medical Research on Backpacks

While the medical literature on backpacks is often inconclusive, and sometimes contradictory, a review of current medical literature suggests several general conclusions:

  • Carrying heavy backpacks, or carrying them in a way that strains the back, is a frequent cause of back pain in children and adolescents
  • The back pain caused by back packs is short term (e.g. muscle strain) and alleviated with a short period of rest or reduced activity; any type of back pain that persists is uncommon and should be evaluated by a medical professional
  • Several authors suggest limiting the backpack weight to 10-15% of the child’s body weight is reasonable. These authors acknowledged that this recommendation is not based on scientific research.
  • One article found no correlation between backpack weight and back pain, and the authors were unwilling to recommend a backpack weight guideline for children
  • There is no evidence that structural spinal deformity can result from backpack use1
  • There is little chance a child will be permanently injured by carrying a heavy backpack

References:

  1. Cottalorda J, Bourelle S, Gautheron V, “Effects of Backpack Carrying in Children,” Orthopedics, Nov 2004 (vol 27:11 p.1172-5), accessed viawww.healio.com.
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Working on our new website

We started working on the new website for Woodlands Pain Consultants. Please let us know your thought on the new develop.

Regards,

Staff!

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