A stiff neck — or problems moving the neck due to pain or discomfort — can be the result of extreme tension within the muscles of the neck. This problem may also be the byproduct of a problem in another area of the body such as the shoulders, arms, or head, in the form of a headache that travels into the neck area. Symptoms that include a cough and stiff neck, on the other hand, may be the body’s way of warning that there is a serious problem in the body threatening the body’s overall well being.
Pain and tightness in the neck can be triggered by an injury such as a muscle sprain or strain resulting in minute tears in the fibers of the muscles, tendons or ligaments. In turn, this causes inflammation, which causes swelling in the area. Once the muscles are injured, as a protective mechanism, the body can react by bringing about a continual firing of the muscle fibers, referred to as a muscle spasm. Spasms, or the persistent involuntary contraction of a muscle, can “lock” the muscles, producing pain and an unwillingness or an inability to move the neck through its normal range of motion, thus protecting the area from further damage.
Common respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, bronchitis, sinusitis and pneumonia can cause a variety of symptoms including a productive cough and stiff neck. When the body is invaded by contaminates, either viral or bacterial in nature, the body responds by producing excessive mucous. Coughing can be brought on by the body's attempts to clear the airways and rid the body of the extra secretions. Stiffness in the neck can be bought on by the continual stress on the neck area from the excessive coughing. However, when a cough and stiff neck are accompanied by other symptoms, such as fever, vomiting, and a headache, it may be more than a simple infection process.
A serious medical illness in which a cough and stiff neck — along with other flu-like symptoms — are present is a condition called meningitis. Meningitis is an infection process that affects the brain by causing inflammation of the covering around the brain, called the meninges. In some cases, meningitis may also affect the spinal cord. If left untreated, meningitis may cause other health problems such as an increase in the risk of seizures, a condition where there is an extreme amount of electrical activity in the brain causing it to “seize” up. Another complication of meningitis is the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition in which excessive fluid buildup causes the inability to breathe properly thus jeopardizing overall wellbeing.