Neck Pain or Stiffness  

This Care Guide Covers:

  • Pain or discomfort in the back, side or front of the neck
  • Minor muscle strain from overuse and neck injury are included
  • Pain in the front of the neck often is from a sore throat. It can also be from a swollen lymph node.

If not, see these topics
View First Aid Advice
  • for Suspected Spinal Cord Injury:

When to Call Your Doctor

Call 911 Now (your child may need an ambulance) If
  • Pain starts after a major injury such as with contact sports or car crash. See FIRST AID. Caution: Don't move your child until a neck brace is put on.
  • You think your child has a life-threatening emergency
Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • Pain started after a minor injury
  • Stiff neck (can't touch chin to chest) with fever
  • Can't move neck normally with fever
  • Headache with fever
  • Numbness, tingling or pain in arms, upper back or legs
  • Muscles in the arms or legs are weak (loss of strength)
  • Pain is SEVERE
  • You think your child needs to be seen urgently
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but not urgently
  • Can’t move neck normally
  • Headache without fever
  • Fever lasts more than 24 hours
  • Age less than 5 years
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Cause of neck pain is not clear (no history of overuse)
  • Neck pain (from lots of turning) lasts more than 2 weeks
  • Neck pains are a frequent problem
Parent Care at Home If
  • Strained neck muscles (with history of overuse) present less than 2 weeks
Causes & Health Information


  • Neck pains due to strained muscles cause these symptoms:
  • The head is often cocked to one side
  • Can't bend the head backward or put the chin to each shoulder. Often, can still bend the neck forward (touch the chin to the chest).
  • The neck muscles are often sore to the touch

Causes of Neck Pain

  • In teens, new neck pain is mostly from strained neck muscles (muscle overuse).
  • Triggers are sleeping in an awkward position or fixing something on the ceiling. Reading in bed or working on a computer for hours can also cause neck pain.
  • At all ages, it can be from a swollen lymph node. That can cause spasm of the neck muscle it lies against.

Causes of Stiff Neck

  • A stiff neck means your child can't touch the chin to the chest.
  • Meningitis is one of the serious causes of a stiff neck with fever. Suspected meningitis needs to be seen now.

Pain Scale

  • Mild: Your child feels pain and tells you about it. But, the pain does not keep your child from any normal activities. School, play and sleep are not changed.
  • Moderate: The pain keeps your child from doing some normal activities. It may wake him or her up from sleep.
  • Severe: The pain is very bad. It keeps your child from doing all normal activities.



  1. What You Should Know:
    • Most new neck pain is from stretching and turning the neck muscles too much. This causes strained muscles from muscle overuse.
    • Looking up or to the side for too long is a common trigger.
    • When muscle pain starts without reason, it's often from sleeping in an awkward position.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Pain Medicine:
    • To help with the pain, give acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen. Use as needed. See Dose Table.
  3. Cold Pack:
    • During the first 2 days, use a cold pack or ice wrapped in a wet cloth.
    • Put it on the sore muscles for 20 minutes.
    • Repeat 4 times on the first day, then as needed.
    • Reason: Reduces pain and any spasm.
    • Caution: Avoid frostbite.
  4. Heat Pack:
    • If pain lasts over 2 days, put heat on the sore muscles.
    • Use a heat pack, heating pad or warm wet washcloth.
    • Do this for 10 minutes, then as needed.
    • Caution: Avoid burns.
  5. Sleep:
    • Sleep on the back or side, not the stomach.
    • Sleep with a neck collar.
    • Use a foam neck collar (from a drug store). If don't have one, wrap a small towel around the neck.
    • Reason: Keep the head from moving too much during sleep.
  6. Activity:
    • Protect the neck for 48 hours. Then start a gentle stretching program.
    • Avoid any sports or work that increase the pain.
  7. What to Expect:
    • New neck pain without a reason most often goes away in a few days.
    • Neck pain from muscle overuse (strained neck muscles) goes away in 1 to 2 weeks.
  8. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Neck pain becomes severe
    • Stiff neck occurs
    • Pain starts to shoot into the arms, upper back or legs
    • Pain lasts more than 2 weeks
    • Your child becomes worse

And remember, contact your doctor if your child develops any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

This free app has a symptom checker,
dosage tables for common medications,
home health advice and more.

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Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 12/14/2012

Last Revised: 12/15/2012

Content Set: Child Symptom Checker

Copyright 1994-2012 Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.