What Causes a Stiff Neck and Shoulder?

Laura M. Sands

The causes of a stiff neck and shoulder can include poor posture, stress, a muscle sprain in that area or a headache. Stiffness may also be caused by poor ergonomic conditions and is often accompanied by shoulder and arm pain. In more severe cases, these problems may be due to an underlying medical condition such as meningitis. Poor sleeping positions, particularly when the head and neck are improperly supported, may also cause shoulder and neck problems.

Stress is a common cause of neck and shoulder stiffness.
Stress is a common cause of neck and shoulder stiffness.

A stiff, sore neck and shoulder pain is commonly associated with bad sitting or standing posture. When the weight of the head is not properly balanced, stress is placed on the neck and shoulders, which results in stiffness and pain. Stiffness caused by poor posture is often correctable without medical intervention. Some people, however, may need to wear a back brace or specialized clothing to correct poor posture and relieve shoulder and neck pain.

Hot water bottles can be used to soothe sore and stiff muscles of the neck and shoulders.
Hot water bottles can be used to soothe sore and stiff muscles of the neck and shoulders.

Stress is also a common cause of neck and shoulder stiffness. Many people have a tendency to unconsciously tighten their shoulder muscles when preoccupied with worry and anxiety. This results in stiff, tight muscles. Prolonged stiffness may also cause chronic pain in these areas.

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Although an ergonomic chair may help alleviate a stiff neck and shoulder pain, it's still important to take frequent stretch breaks.
Although an ergonomic chair may help alleviate a stiff neck and shoulder pain, it's still important to take frequent stretch breaks.

In some cases, shoulder and neck discomfort indicates a serious medical condition like meningitis. Bacterial forms of this illness are treatable with prescription antibiotics. In addition to shoulder and neck stiffness, an infected person may also experience nausea, a headache, and vomiting. While anyone can contract the bacteria that causes this disease, it most commonly occurs in young children.

Neck stiffness caused by bacterial meningitis should be treated with hospitalization and antibiotics.
Neck stiffness caused by bacterial meningitis should be treated with hospitalization and antibiotics.

Muscle sprains due to an athletic injury, placing too much stress on the neck and shoulders, or from improper posture while exercising commonly cause a stiff neck and shoulder. When discomfort is caused by a muscle sprain, the muscles need to be rested so they can heal. Anti-inflammatory medications and a light massage may also help.

A massage may help to relieve a stiff neck.
A massage may help to relieve a stiff neck.

Headaches caused by tension, food allergies, a lack of quality rest and repetitive or prolonged work may also contribute to a stiffness. A caffeine dependency or skipping meals may also cause a headache, which may trigger neck and shoulder problems. Often, symptoms are relieved by rest and over-the-counter or herbal headache remedies. Those with chronic headache symptoms, however, may need medical attention.

Poor posture can cause shoulder pain.
Poor posture can cause shoulder pain.
Anti-inflammatory medications and a light shoulder massage may help heal muscle sprains.
Anti-inflammatory medications and a light shoulder massage may help heal muscle sprains.
Tension headaches may cause a stiff neck and shoulder.
Tension headaches may cause a stiff neck and shoulder.

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