Some of the ways to treat a stiff neck are over-the-counter pain medicines, hot or cold compresses and refraining from normal physical activity, as recommended by the University of Maryland Medical Center. Sleeping on a specialized neck pillow or sleeping without a pillow on a firm mattress can also help. Pronounced twisting of the neck or back and heavy lifting should be avoided for about 6 weeks after the first onset of pain.
When treating a stiff neck with hot and cold compresses, ice should be used for the first 2 to 3 days. Heat should follow, and it can be applied through hot compresses, warm showers or a heating pad. Care should be taken, however, when using a heating pad or a cold compress. Falling asleep while in contact with either one can injure the skin, as cautioned by the University of Maryland Medical Center.
To help stretch the neck muscles, slow range-of-motion exercises can be performed. These include slowly moving the head up-and-down and side-to-side. Having a partner provide a gentle massage of the affected areas can be helpful. A physical therapist or a doctor should be consulted before resuming any exercise programs.
Everyday activities that result in tension or muscle strain are some of the typical causes of a stiff neck, but pain in the neck area can also be a sign of a more serious condition. Immediate emergency medical attention should be sought if the neck is too stiff for the chin to touch the chest and there is fever and a headache. Shortness of breath, nausea, sweating and vomiting accompanying neck pain can also indicate a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.