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What Is the Connection between a Stiff Neck and Meningitis?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Stiff neck is a symptom of meningitis. Caused by infection-related inflammation of the membranous tissue surrounding the brain and spinal column, a stiff neck is a classic sign of this potentially life-threatening condition. Treatment for stiff neck and meningitis generally requires aggressive antibiotic treatment. In some cases, a procedure to relieve intracranial pressure may be performed to prevent brain injury.

Meningitis is generally detected with imaging and laboratory testing. A blood culture is performed to determine whether the infection is of viral or bacterial origin. If the infection is bacterial-based, the culture will identify the bacterium responsible. Identifying the cause of infection is essential to providing appropriate treatment to alleviate infection and reduce inflammation. A spinal tap may also be conducted to obtain a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is tested to determine the extent and verify the type of infection.

Infection can settle anywhere in the body. In the case of stiff neck and meningitis, infection settles in the nervous system, namely the brain and spinal cord. The infection causes inflammation of the affected membranous tissue, known as the meninges, that houses the brain and spinal cord. As the infection progresses, inflammation causes the blood vessels to become constricted leading to stiffness in the neck, the impaired flow of CSF, and an increase in intracranial pressure.

Aside from a sore neck, there are several other symptoms associated with meningitis. Individuals with a stiff neck and meningitis develop a fever, decreased appetite, and may become very fatigued. Other signs of meningitis include skin rash, nausea, and headache. It is not uncommon for some individuals to have seizures. Young children will exhibit stiffness throughout their body, irritability, and a lack of energy.

If meningitis symptoms are ignored, serious complications can result. Individuals can sustain irreversible brain damage, organ failure, and go into shock. In some instances, permanent loss of one’s sight or hearing may also occur. Infection that progresses without treatment can cause death.

Treatment for stiff neck and meningitis is dependent on the type of infection. Viral-based infection is generally left to run its course without too much risk for complication. Subsiding within a couple weeks of onset, viral-based meningitis only requires the individual keep hydrated and get plenty of rest. If the infection is bacterial, more aggressive treatment is generally necessary.

Bacterial-based meningitis often necessitates hospitalization and aggressive, intravenous antibiotic therapy to clear the body of infection. Often, steroidal-based medications are given to reduce inflammation and alleviate discomfort. If complications arise, such as dehydration, additional measures are taken. Individuals at risk for brain damage from a dramatic increase in intracranial pressure may undergo a procedure to have a temporary shunt positioned within the skull to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid.

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Discussion Comments
By patience398 — On May 21, 2016

What is the anatomical basis of a stiff neck in meningitis?

By Rotergirl — On Sep 14, 2014

@Pippinwhite -- That is so sad. I remember there was a lot of meningitis around when I started college, and we freshmen were all instructed to head to the infirmary if we started feeling nauseated and had a stiff neck, or if we just had a stiff neck that wouldn't seem to go away. That's always one of the hallmark signs of meningitis.

Even now, if my neck starts hurting, I start thinking about meningitis. I'm a little too old to really be at risk for it now, but it always crosses my mind if I have an aching neck.

By Pippinwhite — On Sep 13, 2014

Not long after we started our senior year of high school, a girl most of us knew who had graduated the year before, died from meningitis.

She came to a football game on Friday night, but went home early, complaining of a stiff neck and nausea. Her parents took her to the ER that night, but by Tuesday, she was dead. It was viral meningitis and everyone who had been around her the weekend before was advised to look out for symptoms. Thank goodness no one else was infected, but you don't expect to die at 19 of a virus. Not in this day and age.

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