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What Can Cause Upper Neck Stiffness?

Updated: May 5, 2022

Upper neck tightness is unfortunately a very common symptom. In a study by Hoy et al. they determined that the prevalence of people with neck pain at any time is up to 86.8%. In any given year, studies show that an average of 25.8% of people will experience neck pain. These are staggering numbers when you look at them.

Fortunately, most neck pain resolves on its own within a few weeks. However, the study showed that relapses of neck pain are common in those that have suffered from it before. Usually, most people take the approach of resting their neck, taking some medication, and gradually getting back to normal. This can be helpful, because most neck pain will resolve on its own, but it is not addressing the root cause of the pain.

Pain is the primary motivator for people when it comes to their body. This makes sense, as pain can be very debilitating and cause significant stress. Because of this, many people will consider their neck to be “healed” if pain is no longer present. This is the wrong way to look at our bodies. While resolving pain is crucial, a return to full function is paramount. Our necks are the most flexible parts of our spine to allow us to look around easily. If we get rid of pain, but our neck mobility is compromised, is that truly a success?

Our bodies are very adaptive to their environment. Due to this fact, if we do not use something, then we will lose it. Imagine not ever turning to your left. Your neck muscles and joints would get tight over time because they were not used to performing a motion. Now, imagine the discomfort if you tried to turn left. You would be limited and probably in pain. You could never turn to your left again and not suffer from pain, but this is unrealistic and it creates additional problems. Maybe you hurt your back from compensating when you need to look to your left? Maybe you can’t reach your left arm over your head because the muscles that connect your neck and shoulder are too tight? The absence of pain is not a successful treatment of a musculoskeletal condition. We often forget this fact in traditional healthcare, and our bodies slowly have less mobility or strength because we simply neglect areas to avoid pain. This is not a long term solution.

Anatomical Causes of Upper Neck Stiffness

Before we go any further, it is important to understand the anatomy involved in your upper neck. The top two vertebrae at the base of your skull are known as the atlas (C1) and axis (C2). The image (courtesy of