What Causes a Stiff Neck and Fever?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Some causes of a stiff neck and fever can be serious.
Some causes of a stiff neck and fever can be serious.

The most important illnesses to mention that may cause stiff neck and fever are meningitis and encephalitis because these are very dangerous. Other conditions that could result in the two symptoms are mononucleosis, tetanus, and subarachnoid hemorrhage. Certain arthritic disorders like ankylosing spondylitis, Felty syndrome, and osteoarthritis are sometimes associated with stiff neck and fever. Alternately, the two symptoms might be unrelated to each other or not indicative of serious disease.

Fever and a stiff, painful neck may be indicative of mononucleosis.
Fever and a stiff, painful neck may be indicative of mononucleosis.

The reason why stiff neck and fever are viewed as concerning is principally due to the fact that they are the most recognizable symptoms of meningitis and encephalitis. Especially in meningitis, the neck is often suddenly very stiff and people are unable to touch the chin to the chest. A fever is likely to be high, too. In encephalitis, the neck may still move with greater ease, but the stiffness is often painful. Both conditions usually feature a significant headache, also.

Tetanus can cause spasms in the stomach.
Tetanus can cause spasms in the stomach.

The stiff neck of mononucleosis is described differently. It’s usually due to extremely swollen glands, and most patients also have very bad sore throats. Fever may be mild to severe, depending on the individual, and this disease is not usually life-threatening. Tetanus, in contrast, can be more serious, though it is rare. It can cause spasms in the jaw, neck, chest, and stomach. People with regular tetanus inoculations are unlikely to contract this illness.

A fever may be mild to severe, depending on the individual, and is not usually life-threatening.
A fever may be mild to severe, depending on the individual, and is not usually life-threatening.

A subarachnoid hemorrhage differs from tetanus or mono because it is not caused by viral or bacterial infections. Instead, it is typically caused by aneurysms — abnormally widened arteries in the brain — that burst, resulting in bleeding. Alternately, head injuries may result in bleeding in the brain. When this hemorrhaging begins, people may experience a still neck and fever, and this condition is also associated with headaches.

Neck stiffness caused by bacterial meningitis should be treated with hospitalization and antibiotics as soon as possible.
Neck stiffness caused by bacterial meningitis should be treated with hospitalization and antibiotics as soon as possible.

In arthritic conditions, deteriorating joints may cause progressive stiffness in the neck. Arthritis that is autoimmune in origin may raise temperature, too. In these illnesses, the symptoms of a stiff neck and fever might both be mild, but over time, arthritis in the neck could worsen. Autoimmune disorders of many other kinds could feature pain in the neck and mysterious fevers. When people have compromised immune systems, they are also more vulnerable to encephalitis and meningitis, so these symptoms should always be taken seriously.

It is also possible for minor viral infections to result in slight neck stiffness, accompanied by other aches, and a small fever. Alternately, the two conditions don’t have to be related. Someone with a cold could sleep on too many pillows and wake up with a stiff neck and fever. Still, these symptoms should never be dismissed given their potential gravity, and performing the chin to chest move is a good home test to determine if meningitis is a concern. This self-exam cannot rule out encephalitis or other serious causal factors of these symptoms, though, so a medical exam is still advised.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent TheHealthBoard contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent TheHealthBoard contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

ysmina

My nephew was hospitalized for meningitis last month. He was complaining that his neck was stiff. When his mother realized that he also has a fever, they went to the hospital immediately. They kept him over night to make sure that his temperature would remain down. He was able to return home the next day.

I believe the biggest risk with meningitis is brain damage. The fever can cause it or the bacteria can cause it too.

fify

@burcinc-- You should see a doctor.

I'm not a doctor so don't go by what I say. When I had strep throat though, I just had a sore throat and fever, not a stiff neck.

Could you have injured your neck somehow. It is possible for the stiff neck and fever to be unrelated. But if you have no reason to assume that you injured or strained your neck recently, see your doctor right away.

The possibility of meningitis is so scary that I don't think anyone should brush off these symptoms if they have them. Even if there is a small chance, get checked out anyway. It's better to be safe than sorry.

burcinc

What about strep throat? Does it cause stiff neck and fever?

I have a slight fever since yesterday. I think I have the flu or strep throat. But strangely, my neck hurts a little bit too. Should I be worried?

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    • Some causes of a stiff neck and fever can be serious.
      By: iofoto
      Some causes of a stiff neck and fever can be serious.
    • Fever and a stiff, painful neck may be indicative of mononucleosis.
      By: Ocskay Bence
      Fever and a stiff, painful neck may be indicative of mononucleosis.
    • Tetanus can cause spasms in the stomach.
      By: Julija Sapic
      Tetanus can cause spasms in the stomach.
    • A fever may be mild to severe, depending on the individual, and is not usually life-threatening.
      By: Yeko Photo Studio
      A fever may be mild to severe, depending on the individual, and is not usually life-threatening.
    • Neck stiffness caused by bacterial meningitis should be treated with hospitalization and antibiotics as soon as possible.
      By: rob3000
      Neck stiffness caused by bacterial meningitis should be treated with hospitalization and antibiotics as soon as possible.