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What to Do About a Stiff Neck

First Aid

A stiff neck without other symptoms is often caused by minor muscle strain from sleeping in an odd position or looking down at a phone too long. This usually gets better with home care.

But a stiff neck that happens after an injury (like a fall) or along with a fever and headache could be more serious. For example, meningitis is a infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord that can cause a stiff neck, headache, and fever.

How Is a Stiff Neck Treated?

If your child has a stiff or sore neck but wasn't injured and has no fever or other symptoms:

  • Put a warm moist cloth on the neck for 20 minutes every 3–4 hours as needed for pain.
  • Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain. Don't give ibuprofen to an infant younger than 6 months old.
  • Call the doctor if symptoms last more than a few days or don't improve.

When Should I Call the Doctor for a Stiff Neck?

Call the doctor right away if your child has a stiff neck and:

  • had a recent injury
  • was bitten by a tick within the last month
  • has a fever (or is a baby and has a lower-than-normal temperature)
  • seems very tired or drowsy
  • is very cranky (or is a baby and can't be comforted)
  • has a lasting headache
  • is vomiting
  • has a skin rash
  • has flu-like symptoms
  • is an infant and has a weak suck, high-pitched cry, or a bulging soft spot on the skull

Can Stiff Necks Be Prevented?

To avoid neck pain from sore muscles:

  • Encourage kids not to look down at their phones too long. It’s important to take breaks.
  • Make sure your child’s sleeping area is comfortable. Check that the pillow isn’t too tall or too flat to support the neck. A lumpy pillow or toys in the bed can create an uncomfortable night of sleep.

To avoid more serious causes of neck pain:

  • Make sure your kids get all recommended vaccines on time, especially the meningococcal vaccine, which protects against bacterial meningitis.
  • Help kids avoid bites from ticks that may carry meningitis:
    • Use insect repellent (with no more than 10% to 30% concentration of DEET).
    • Check kids and pets for ticks after they've been outdoors.
    • Have kids wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts in high-risk outdoor areas.

Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date Reviewed: Mar 16, 2023

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