Dealing with painful, sore, and stiff neck muscles is a multi-step process. The first step should be to determine the cause of the pain and to change habits or activities that cause stiff neck muscles in the first place. Rest, treatment, or medication are then generally called for to ease the pain and aid healing. A gradual program of stretching, combined with some lifestyle changes can then deal with the last of the pain and stiffness and prevent neck muscles from causing trouble again. Very serious neck pain or neck pain that persists for weeks or includes symptoms such as numbness should always be referred to a doctor.
Stiff neck muscles can be caused by any number of problems or behaviors. Stress and tension are leading culprits in the modern world, as is poor posture at work and at home. Overexertion during exercise can cause stiff neck muscles, as can stress and injury stemming from sports. Many people report neck stiffness after sleeping in an unusual position, in bed or elsewhere. Even a simple, jarring surprise that causes a person to jerk their head to one side can cause pain and stiffness.
Accidents and surprises cannot be avoided, but the other causes of stiff neck muscles can and should be addressed. Changes in habits and lifestyle can reduce stress. Gentle physical activities such as yoga can aid in stress reduction and also strengthen and stretch muscles. Workspaces, especially those where computers are used for long periods of time, should be evaluated and reconfigured to be as ergonomic as possible. Special neck support pillows can be helpful, as well.
The actual treatment of stiff neck muscles normally focuses on easing discomfort and reducing swelling. Cold can numb a stiff neck and also reduces inflammation, while heat is generally soothing. Topical analgesics containing menthol can be used to numb the site of neck stiffness and aid in relaxation. A massage can help to relieve muscle tension and will help most people relax and deal with stress as well. Pain medicine, particularly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, can both ease symptoms and decrease swelling, although care should be taken to avoid any potentially dangerous activity while using such medication, as the ability to notice new neck pain or injury will also be suppressed.
Over the longer term, the same lifestyle changes that help to ease the pain of stiff neck muscles can be useful in preventing future pain. Once muscles have started to heal and relax, a program of gentle stretching can aid healing and prevent new injuries. A personal trainer can provide advice on a workout plan that strengthens neck muscles without placing dangerous new stresses on them.