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Every year, at least three out of every ten Americans has a run-in with neck pain. That’s a lot of people with strains, stiff necks, inflammation and other forms of aches and pains in the neck. Necks are complicated and contain the structures that help us swallow, breathe and speak. Plus, the neck supports the not-inconsiderable weight of the head. So it’s not surprising, in a way, that our necks hurt every once in a while.

That said, it’s not as though we need another thing giving us neck pain. With COVID so widespread, many people worry the virus may affect their necks, among other things, or that COVID could be worsening pre-existing neck pains.

Is a stiff neck a sign of COVID?

The short answer is yes, potentially. There are many reasons why your neck is hurting, and COVID is one potential culprit. In fact, generalized aches, which can include neck aches and pains, are part of the set of symptoms often reported with a COVID infection. Additionally, a COVID infection can cause the lymph nodes in the neck to become swollen and tender.

Stiffness can be part of generalized neck pain and discomfort. While some patients report feeling neck stiffness along with COVID infections, a stiff neck has not been declared a clinical indicator of COVID.

“Long haul” cases involve people previously infected with COVID who report lingering symptoms, which can include neck pain. Scientists and health care professionals are still gathering more information about the characteristics of “long haul” COVID, as we don’t yet completely understand why these symptoms persist.

How do I tell what’s causing my stiff neck?

Besides COVID, there are many different things that can make your neck hurt or feel stiff. A few characteristics can help clue you in to what kind of pain you might be dealing with.


  • Whiplash injuries, which sometimes occur during car accidents can shear or otherwise damage soft tissues in the neck
  • Trauma sustained during sports, falls or other accidents that involve abrupt force can tear, sprain, strain or otherwise damage muscles, tendons or ligaments in the neck (and your neck can consequently feel stiff as it tries to heal)

Structural problems

  • Disc slippage can lead to neck vertebrae which are no longer as well supported slipping out of alignment and being subjected to more pressure than usual
  • Pinched nerves happen when spinal discs slip out of alignment or bone spurs press into spinal nerves
  • Bone spurs can develop when the cartilage in the joints between vertebrae wear down

Diseases and chronic conditions

  • Bacterial or viral meningitis can contribute to a stiff neck. Other signs of meningitis include a very severe headache (sometimes accompanied by vomiting or nausea), photophobia (wanting to avoid light), a sudden, high fever, confusion or seizures. If you think you might have meningitis, seek medical care immediately, as it can be serious
  • Cervical spondylosis is a form of arthritis involving degeneration of the seven vertebrae in the neck and the discs between them that help cushion them
  • Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition causing pain throughout the body, which can include the neck

Overuse injuries

  • Strains or sprains and other overuse injuries can set in if you work for extended periods of time in an environment that doesn’t support good overall posture
  • Repetitive strain injuries can happen if you perform the same motions over and over without enough support or enough breaks
  • “Tech neck,” the pain that comes from habitually slumping over to stare at your phone or laptop, can happen over time. Poor posture in general can put extra stress on your neck and hurt it
  • Tooth grinding can be a sign of stress, and often happens while you sleep, so you may not be aware you’re doing it, even though you may feel neck pain related to it

Mental components

  • Stress can be an often overlooked source of pain. It can both raise the levels of inflammatory chemicals in your body and make you tense your muscles, tightening them to the point of pain
  • Anxiety or fear about pain can, unfortunately, also increase your pain. When you’re apprehensive or anxious about hurting more, you tend to stay on high alert for any sign of discomfort. Your stress levels can easily increase, while the pain handling pathways in your body and brain can simultaneously become more sensitive. This can add up to feeling pain faster and more intensely
  • Depression is involved with many of the same pathways in the body that process pain, and depression can decrease your resilience in the face of pain, so that it hurts more

How do I get rid of a stiff neck?

If you suspect you may be infected with COVID, it’s a good idea to get tested for it. Your care team can help monitor you and provide specific guidance if you do prove to be infected. As a reminder, while COVID can be a stressful and daunting experience, most people recover without needing hospitalization.

Some people report neck pain related to getting vaccinated. If you notice this as well, it could be tenderness related to swelling in the cervical lymph nodes under your jaw, which can become slightly inflamed after a vaccine as part of the body’s immune response. The lymph node pain generally subsides on its own within a few days.

Neck pain can be very bothersome, since it’s pretty difficult to function comfortably with a stiff neck, a crick in the neck or anything else that makes it hard to eat, turn your head, sleep and get through your day. You might wonder, how long is this neck pain going to last? Reassuringly, many cases of neck pain heal or improve within a few weeks.

Here are a few tips for dealing with a stiff neck or neck pain:

  • To start with, try to move your neck slowly and gently as much as possible, to keep your muscles limber
  • Try to flex your neck side to side, touching your right ear to your right shoulder, then the left ear to the left shoulder. Try to tip your chin to your chest and then point your chin to the sky. Repeat these range of motion stretches several times a day
  • Applying heat or cold to your neck may help, so you may want to try draping a bag of frozen peas around your neck or using a warm compress. A hot shower may also help ease soreness
  • Over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may bring down some of the pain, as may topical pain relief creams
  • For severe or complicated pain, a doctor can prescribe compounded pain cream formulated personally for you. Injections or non-opioid drugs for pain management may also be an option
  • Massage, physical therapy or acupuncture may also be a good fit for you. Physical therapy has brought many patients with stiff necks relief, as physical therapists are trained in advanced techniques to work with different anatomical structures
  • You can also help yourself at home with home exercises. Make sure you follow exercises from a trained, preferably licensed therapist or sports trainer who is familiar with appropriate exercises for neck pain

Trying to sleep and get work done with a stiff or painful neck

Sometimes neck pain is indeed due to the pandemic, but not to COVID infection directly. Rather, the confinement and awkward ergonomic conditions often involved with working long hours from home can cause all kinds of back and neck aches and pains. If you feel isolated, haven’t been getting the kinds of exercise you normally do, are waking up with a stiff neck from sleeping awkwardly or not sleeping enough, or are feeling stressed, these factors could be contributing to your neck pain, too.

To address these kinds of concerns, make sure your workplace is as ergonomically friendly as possible, practice good posture and work on stress management. Specific tips include:

  • If you work long hours while sitting, use an ergonomic chair if possible, not a dining room table or folding chair. If an ergonomic chair isn’t possible, get a lumbar support cushion
  • When you’re standing, keep your abs engaged and your spine in stacked alignment. When you’re sitting, try to keep your chin, hips, and knees at 90 degree angles, with your shoulders back and your back straight
  • Get up every half hour or so to stretch, roll your shoulders, take a short walk, or otherwise shift positions
  • Use breathing exercises, meditation techniques, yoga or mindfulness for stress management
  • Regular exercise and regularly getting in touch with friends can also help mitigate stress. Don’t hesitate to take a few moments for yourself when you need to
  • Sleep with a cervical pillow to support your neck as best as possible
  • And get 7-8 hours of sleep every night to support full rest and healing

Is it possible to prevent neck pain?

Staying active, as much as possible, helps stave off neck pain. One rule of thumb is to complete a set of tiny neck movements, like rolls or stretches, every half hour. Every hour, try to get up and move around. Once a day, complete thirty minutes of exercise as a main workout.

Good posture helps keep pain away, as does taking deep, regular breaths and figuring out what techniques help you best deal with stress. Don’t forget to seek out things that make you feel both happy and healthy as well. Even tiny moments of joy can help get you through a challenging day while also helping counter pain.

Finally, getting vaccinated and keeping your basic health foundation strong by following good lifestyle medicine guidelines (eating well, getting regular exercise, and figuring out how to best feel supported) can help you avoid the worst of COVID.

Dr. Jacob, MD