When a Pain in the Neck is a Pain in Your Neck
It’s happened to most of us: you fall asleep one night feeling pretty good, yet you wake up the next morning with a crick in your neck. You might have some degree of movement that feels okay, but too far in any direction and you feel stiffness/pain. You are turning your whole body to talk to the person next to you, and you can’t really check your blind-spot for safe driving. It is, both literally and figuratively, a pain in the neck.
It happened to me a couple weeks ago, and as I was sitting on my couch self-treating (because physical therapists are just like you!) it occurred to me that the way I self-treat might be different than what someone else might think to do.
Before I get into the “what to do,” let me just say that all of those symptoms may indicate any number of underlying issues such as strains or spasms of the neck muscles, sprains to the ligaments, or inflammation of the joints in the neck. The term “a crick in the neck” is generally used to describe temporary stiffness, pain, and limited range of motion that arises primarily from muscle strains and spasms in the neck muscles or the muscles around the shoulder blades. It is different than chronic or recurrent neck pain, and the cause could be anything from the position you slept in, to something you did the day before, or the slow accumulation of stress, poor posture or repetitive activities.
Sleeping position, or any prolonged position, can cause muscle injury due to lack of blood flow-- and therefore lack of oxygen and nutrients. If this persists, the muscle can become inflamed. Additionally, forward head positions (lookin’ at you slouchers…) or looking down (hi, text neck!) cause the upper trapezius and other muscles on the back of the neck to work over-time to hold your head up against gravity-- which in addition to irritating the muscles, causes compression in the joints in the upper part of the neck. Prolonged arm use or heavy lifting may also cause neck muscles to overwork, particularly if the arm or shoulder muscles are weak or fatigue during the activity.
Understanding the reason you have a crick in the first place may help you avoid them in the future, by making adjustments to your daily habits. But, once you have one, you really just want it to go away as fast as possible. Which brings me back to my neck, and what I did to help relieve it.
Movement is Your Friend Gentle movement and stretching can help increase blood flow to the area, and help to loosen joints and muscles that may be irritated. In other words, avoiding movement will actually prolong your pain. That said, only use the range you can comfortably, and that feels more like stretching than pinching. This way you don’t continue to aggravate the tissues that need time to recover.
Self Massage Using a set of mobility balls, a foam roller, or even just your hand to apply some pressure and massage along the length of the muscle will also help to increase blood flow and loosen the tissues. But again, less may be more. Keep pressure to a degree that you can easily relax into and limit your self-massage sessions to a few minutes a few times a day.
Heat Like the other suggestions here, applying heat can increase blood flow and decrease muscle tightness, but limit the time to 10-15 min and stop if it seems like it is getting more stiff or painful. While some heat is good, too much can increase inflammation which may make you feel worse.
Finally, medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen may help with your pain or inflammation. But, if you are unsure about your reaction to these, or their interactions with any other medicines you might be taking, ask your physician first.
Getting “a crick in the neck” can be a nuisance, but muscle strains generally heal in three days or less. If your pain or restrictions last longer than that, it is time to see your physical therapist. There may be something else going on, or you may need help to identify why the muscles continue to be irritated. Guess who can help with that? ;) Contact us today! 404-907-1981 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah Terpin, PT, DPT
After experiencing a variety of different approaches to physical therapy practice in Oregon and Utah, Sarah found her home in Functionize’s private-pay model giving the direction and decision-making power back to the patient. A firm believer in taking the whole human into account as opposed to focusing on a symptom, she is adept at creative approaches that lead to ah-ha moments around the root cause for pain or limitation.
At Functionize Health & Physical Therapy we work with athletes and active people at all levels to develop individualized treatment plans to help them safely and fully recover from injuries and get them back to the activities they love. If you have worked with us one-on-one, you know that we don’t subscribe to generic protocols or programs; it is never one-size-fits-all, and that applies to these tips as well. If you are recovering from an injury, talk to your PT about how stretching and or foam rolling may affect you.