Crick in the neck: 7 ways to get relief from neck pain and stiffness

What can I do to help my crick in the neck?

Crick in the neckA crick in the neck (acute stiff neck, spasmodic torticollis or wry neck) happens without warning and often as a result of doing something that you have done hundreds of times before and without any problem.  Often the sudden neck spasm or neck stiffness happens after a small twist or turn of the neck at an unguarded moment.  A few common ways to trigger an episode of sudden neck stiffness and pain, or a crick in the neck:

  1. Looking around to back the car down the driveway
  2. Briskly drying your hair with a towel
  3. Tipping the head back while laughing
  4. Bringing the head forward while sneezing

The locking or crick in neck muscles occurs because all of these actions, and many more during the course of a common day, can apply unexpected pressure on a nerve in the neck as it emerges from the spine.  The primary ways a pinched nerve in the neck can happen are:

  1. Strain of soft tissue (tendon, ligament, muscle) in the neck that protects the spine
  2. Excessive movement or slight slippage of a spinal bone resulting in pinched nerve
  3. Bulging or tearing of disc tissue
  4. Aggravation of neck arthritis

How you treat your crick in the neck during the first few hours makes a big difference in how long the problem will last and how severe the neck pain will be.  This article presents seven important things to do to reduce the sudden neck pain and stiffness that happens when a pinched nerve in the neck develops suddenly.  It is important to not ignore the jab of neck stiffness as it begins to tighten and reduce full range of movement of the head and neck. Act promptly to use as many of the following tips and techniques to control the kink in neck muscles that limit full movement and deliver jabs of pain.

The stabbing pain and inability to move is often caused by a sudden spasm that does not stop, but often grows stronger by the minute.  The neck pain will often extend down from the base of the skull into the heavy shoulder muscles to some degree, but most distress will localize chiefly where the nerve is being pinched.  The neck and shoulder muscles go into a deep and uncontrollable protective spasm that only intensifies the pain from the pinched nerve; the purpose of this spasm that locks the neck in an awkward position is to prevent movement that could cause further pinching and injury to the nerves in the neck.

The most common and accepted explanation for the sudden and uncontrollable neck spasm, often keeping the head and neck immobilized in an awkward position, is that a crick in neck muscles is a sign the body is trying to prevent a more serious problem such as a pinched nerve in the neck. The suddenness and severity of the spastic muscle contraction of a crick in the neck usually indicates that the body is doing everything possible to prevent further pressure or injury to the nerve that was momentarily pinched in the neck. The defense mechanism of the body will not allow injury to these major nerve structures of the neck and it quickly locks the neck to prevent a potentially larger problem from developing.

Treatment for a crick in the neck

Use as many of these simple measures as necessary to reduce pain and increase range of motion of the neck when a sudden neck spasm occurs. The longer this problem lingers the more difficult it is to finally be free of the neck stiffness.

1. Evaluate what you were doing when the crick in the neck started, and shortly before that time to determine what might have started or contributed to it. Once you have identified how and why the stiff neck started you will want to avoid or reduce that same situation in the future.

Were you turning your head around too fast or too far?  Did you hold your neck in an awkward or uncomfortable position for too long?  Did you strain your neck muscles by doing too much or working while you were tired? Are you tired and stressed?  Any of these causes will contribute to a crick in neck muscles if done long enough.

2. Evaluate your neck and upper back posture to determine if this contributed to your sudden bout of a stiff neck. Good posture and balanced body activity is essential to limit excessive muscle fatigue. Poor neck posture can eventually lead to arthritis and a whole range of symptoms that include pinched nerves neck and sudden spasm in the neck.

Faulty neck posture occurs when the head and neck and head are not balanced over the shoulders but are held away from the chest, or the head is tipped so that one ear is closer to the shoulder than the other.  Many postural stresses begin as simple habits that soon become permanent as the muscles, tendons and ligaments compensate and adapt to the faulty posture. .

Looking at yourself in the mirror the neck and head should be kept vertical and level.  Looking from the side, a slight forward curve should be kept in the neck so the ear canal opening is lined up with the center of the shoulder joint. If you find that the neck and should muscles are frequently tense or tight, it is a good guess that you have poor neck posture.  Seek professional guidance for ways to correct your posture, increase muscle tone while remaining flexible.

Do not sleep face down on your stomach with your head turned to the side – sleep on your back or side.  Sleeping face down for hours each night causes the neck to severely twist to the side so you can breathe and this creates a wide range of neck problems with joints, muscles and nerves.  Use a low sleep pillow that does not distort your normal neck posture by bringing the head up too high when sleeping on the side or back, and keeps the neck fully supported.

Do not sit for a long time holding the head down sharply or leaning forward so the head is projecting far from the shoulders. If it is necessary to look down for a long time take frequent rest breaks while looking away at a distance.  This avoids neck fatigue and eye strain caused by looking down at near objects. During these time-out breaks move around while stretch the spine while paying special attention to the neck and upper back.

3. Carefully do gentle neck stretches.  Think of any stretches you will do to regain lost mobility as a way to tease and gently coax the tissue to let go of the severe spasm, but to do it without any force at all.

Do not move or twist the neck and head to cause pain.  Move the neck and head carefully within your comfort zone to reduce swelling and promote movement. Slowly move your neck and head in a variety of directions to discover one or two positions that just begin to excite a tolerable pain level. Use caution and slow movement to gently work the tissue by gently stretching in whatever way seems most effective. Hold your neck and head in that position until the pain feels begins to ease and the crick in neck muscles is less severe.

Do not try to push past the pain.  Do not perform any stretching movement too quickly or if the pain is too great.  Do not try to break the muscle spasm or force the neck to move beyond a point of resistance.

4. Use ice or heat, and later a combination of both.

Most often, at the start of an acute stiff neck  an ice pack applied over the area of greatest pain and discomfort will give greatest relief and assist the healing process.  Even so, some people might feel more relief to a heat application if the injury is not severe. How do you know which to use?  Simple.  Try them both to learn which gives you greatest help.  Even though a cold pack does not feel very comfortable at the start, ice will almost always offer the greatest level of help.

After a day or two, or when a fair amount of pain has been reduced and movement is easier, try alternating hot and cold applications to the area of primary complaint. The reason this approach is often helpful is that heat dilates blood vessels and relaxes muscles, and cold reduces inflammation and numbs pain sensation.  Both are helpful and can be used in combination when recovery is moving along.

5. Rest the neck muscles as much as possible while the crick in the neck is most intense and pain is greatest.  Frequent breaks to rest the neck will offer the muscles an opportunity to relax the protective spasm.

Lie on your back several times during the day, especially if a lot of upper body activity is being done.  Place a folded towel under the neck to maintain the natural curve of the cervical spine.  These frequent rest periods show the spastic neck muscles it is safe to reduce the protective spasm, and they no longer have to strain to protect the nerves of the neck.

Do not overdo the rest periods.  Resting too much can quickly weaken the neck muscles can interfere with recovery and make re-injury more likely to occur. Give yourself two or three 30 minute rest periods during the day, and eliminate during these days all strenuous work so that your normal daily routine without the excessive workloads.  In this way you are reasonably active, resting often, and not overdoing heavy work. This is a good mix of activity that will promote faster recovery than doing too much or doing too little.

6. Use small doses of non-prescription pain medication if needed.

Most people have their favorite over-the-counter, or OTC, “pain pill” they know from past experience that does a good job for them.  Usually it is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or NSAIDs (aspirin, Aleve or ibuprofen) if needed.  The NSAIDs are over-the-counter pain medications that not only relieve pain, but also reduce the inflammation where the nerve is being pinched.

Take NSAIDs only as necessary and in small doses to make the pain tolerable; if the pain is not intense and you are slowly feeling better you might think about not using any NSAID at all. Overuse of a pain reducing drug, even if it is non-prescription, can so reduce the major pain that a person can be fooled into thinking they are better and more fully recovered than they actually are.  This can cause someone to return to full activity to soon or work too hard too early in their recovery.

7. Gently massage the area of greatest pain with your fingertips. Look for bands or nodules of tight and tender contracted tissue just below surface level of the skin. Common areas where these painful knots can be found are at the base of the skull, along the top of the heavy shoulder muscles where they attach to the top of the shoulder blade and where the primary pain is felt where the crick in the neck is most severe.

This massage for a crick in the neck can be done with the pad of the thumb or the fingertips as light pressure is applied to gently rub and massage these painful nodule in small circles.  Heavy or deep pressure is not needed.  Do not press or massage so hard that the pain level is not increased; massage lightly to avoid intense pain. Massage each painful area you find for about one minute.

Ask someone to gently rub the area if you cannot comfortably reach up to touch your neck due to pain. Instruct the person doing this massage to be very gentle; do not allow anyone to apply too much pressure or to cause pain.

Prompt action to reduce acidity, apply cold, rest, very gently stretch and massage the neck, and use small doses of an OTC pain medication area can make a huge difference to reduce recovery time for a crick in the neck.

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