Should Your Child See a Doctor?

Neck Pain or Stiffness

Is this your child's symptom?

  • 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.

Causes of Neck Pain

  • Strained Neck Muscles. In teens, new neck pain is mostly from stretched neck muscles muscle overuse. Common triggers are sleeping in an awkward position or fixing something on the ceiling. Reading in bed or working on a computer for hours can trigger neck pain. So can weight lifting or carrying something heavy. So can sitting up front in a movie theater.
  • Infected Lymph Node. At all ages, it can be from a swollen lymph node. That can irritate and cause spasm of the neck muscle it lies against.
  • Whiplash Injury. Caused by sudden movement of the head and neck. The head snaps back and forth. Neck muscles, nerves and ligaments are stretched. Can occur with a rear-end auto collision. Can also be from a sports injury. Needs to be examined.
  • Major Neck Injury Serious. The neck protects the spinal cord. A fracture or other injury of the neck can damage the cord. Therefore, all neck injuries need to on a spine board until they are cleared.
  • Meningitis Very Serious. A bacterial infection of the membrane that covers the spinal cord and brain. The main symptoms are a stiff neck, headache, confusion and fever. A stiff neck means your child can't touch the chin to the chest. Younger children are lethargic or so irritable that they can't be consoled. If not treated early, child can suffer brain damage.


  • 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

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.

When to Call for Neck Pain or Stiffness

Call 911 Now

  • Pain starts after a major injury such as with contact sports or car crash
  • Not moving or too weak to stand
  • You think your child has a life-threatening emergency

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Pain started after a minor injury
  • Can't move neck normally with fever
  • Severe pain
  • Not alert when awake "out of it"
  • Acts or talks confused
  • Your child looks or acts very sick
  • You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Can't move neck normally
  • Headache without fever
  • Fever lasts more than 24 hours
  • Age less than 5 years
  • You think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • 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
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Strained neck muscles from turning or overuse present less than 2 weeks

Seattle Children’s Urgent Care Locations

If your child’s illness or injury is life-threating, call 911.

Care Advice for Strained Neck Muscles

  1. What You Should Know About Neck Pain:
    • Most new neck pain is from stretching and turning the neck muscles too much. Muscle overuse causes strained neck muscles.
    • 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 an acetaminophen product such as Tylenol.
    • Another choice is an ibuprofen product such as Advil.
    • Use as needed.
  3. Cold Pack for Pain:
    • 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. Use Heat After 48 Hours:
    • If pain lasts over 2 days, put heat on the sore muscle.
    • Use a heat pack, heating pad or warm wet washcloth.
    • Do this for 10 minutes, then as needed.
    • Reason: Increase blood flow and improve healing.
    • Caution: Avoid burns.
  5. Sleep Position:
    • Sleep on the back or side, not the stomach.
    • Sleep with a neck collar for a few nights.
    • 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. Avoid any activity that increases the pain.
    • After 48 hours, 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
    • You think your child needs to be seen
    • Your child becomes worse

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

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to 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.

Last Reviewed: 12/14/2012

Last Revised: 12/14/2012

Copyright 1994-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.