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What are the Most Common Causes of Neck Pain in Toddlers?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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There are a handful of medical issues that can cause neck pain in toddlers. The most common of these include neck sprains, torticollis and meningitis. As with adults, sleeping in an awkward position can also cause neck pain the next morning. While neck pain typically goes away on its own, it can be a sign of a larger issue when coupled with other symptoms.

Toddlers are naturally active and generally fearless. This can lead to accidental falls that can result in a sprained neck. In most cases, this type of neck pain in toddlers is not a cause for alarm. Discomfort can be eased with warm compresses, infant or children ibuprofen as recommended by the child’s pediatrician and neck massages. Neck sprains usually heal themselves within two to three weeks, but if the child is in a large amount of pain, a trip to the doctor may be necessary.

Torticollis, a contraction of neck muscles on one side of the head, can also cause pain. While many assume this medical issue only applies to infants, known as congenital torticollis, it can also develop during the toddler years. This most commonly occurs after some type of neck injury or sleeping in an awkward position on a routine basis, such as in a car seat. In some cases, it can also be a side effect of a severe cold. The neck pain that may accompany torticollis can be treated in the same manner as a neck sprain, while the neck muscle contraction is typically treated with stretching exercises and occasionally physical therapy or medications.

While neck pain in toddlers by itself is not usually serious, when coupled with a high fever, fatigue or sensitivity to light, it is one of the prime symptoms of meningitis. This disease is the result of a bacterial or viral infection in the lining and fluid surrounding the brain. If a toddler is experiencing neck pain, especially if he is completely unwilling to look downward, he should be taken to the emergency room as quickly as possible. As with most diseases, meningitis is best treated early and aggressively. While viral meningitis can, in many cases, be treated with plenty of rest, fluids and pain killers to ease symptoms, bacterial meningitis typically requires antibiotics and oftentimes corticosteroids to reduce the inflammation in the brain lining.

A much less serious cause of neck pain in toddlers can simply be sleeping in a funny position. Young children often go until they drop, and may fall asleep in whatever way they first lay down. This can cause a toddler to awaken with a stiff neck and some amount of neck pain. If this is the case, there is usually no cause for concern; as when adults sleep in an uncomfortable position, the feeling of stiffness or pain will often wear off by the end of the day.

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Discussion Comments
By bluedolphin — On Mar 28, 2014

@literally45-- Can you purchase a small pillow, such as a traveler's pillow but for children?

Neck pain usually occurs because car seats are not shaped properly. There is usually too much space between the top part of the car seat and the child's neck, so the neck is left unsupported. This causes neck pain after some time. So placing a small pillow or even a rolled up towel can support his neck during car trips.

You might also want to wake him up once in a while when he's sleeping in the car seat so that his neck is not resting on one side all the time.

If none of these work, I think you should buy a new car seat for him because this type of frequent pain can eventually lead to neck injury. It's not safe to use such a poor car seat for a toddler.

By literally45 — On Mar 27, 2014

Is there a way to prevent neck pain from car seats? My son develops neck pain every time we take a car trip and I know that it's because of his car seat. The issue is that I just bought the car seat and cannot return it or buy a new one. I'm not sure what to do.

By SteamLouis — On Mar 27, 2014

Toddlers with fever and neck pain should be rushed to the hospital immediately.

I have a friend whose sister developed meningitis as a toddler. She had fever and neck pain but her parents, unaware that these re signs of meningitis, took too long to get her to a doctor. Unfortunately she developed mental retardation as a result. Meningitis can even be deadly, so these symptoms have to be taken very seriously. It's best to take precautions and visit a professional rather than relying on guesswork about what might be wrong with a toddler.

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