The Stiff Neck – Causes, Treatment, and Prevention
Necks, am I right?
While stiff muscles are unpleasant in any given part of the body, neck stiffness seems to add a bit of insult to injury. Not only can neck stiffness be debilitating, but some of its common causes are just plain silly. For example, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard from my clients some derivative form of “I sneezed awkwardly and now I can’t turn my head.” And before you think I’m insensitive for laughing at that, I too sneeze awkwardly and sometimes injure my neck in the process.
If you have a pulse and are over the age of ten, you’ve probably experienced a stiff neck at some point or another. It’s not fun. Even the most mundane of activities can become undoable. You get to a stop sign, try to cross the street, and then you realize you can’t rotate your head to look both ways. Frustrated, you try to shrug it off, only to find that shrugging makes the pain even worse. Now what are you supposed to do?
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”
Well, there’s plenty of things you can do to treat a stiff neck, but maybe we should start with ways to prevent it from happening in the first place. Afterall, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Let’s talk about the common causes, follow up with how to hinder those causes, and then get into the treatment!
So, what are some common causes?
Forward head posture
This is really the most common cause of muscular tightness in general. When your head hangs forward, you overstretch your neck muscles. When you subsequently strain your neck, your other muscles have to overcompensate for your neck’s dysfunction. Everybody loses.
Uncomfortable sleeping position
You ever wake up with your head crushed beneath the weight of a sleeping dog? Yeah, me too. Thankfully, my inability to breathe usually wakes me before the neck pain has time to arise. But that’s not the case for other problematic sleeping positions. Sometimes, you won’t wake up until the damage is already done. It tends to happen when you conk out on anything other than a bed. Or when you unconsciously twist your neck in a way that only an owl should.
Oh, bruxism. If you grind your teeth in your sleep (like I do), then your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is likely out of alignment. Fun stuff. Your facial muscles are sore, migraines are a problem, and your neck is under stress for having to carry that achy head.
Sports can be rough. Strains and sprains are common from muscular overuse, but more serious injuries can result from direct hits to the body. Forceful blows to the head or shoulders can cause whiplash. Being tackled by a 350-lb defensive linebacker is comparable to being hit by a car.
Automobile crashes and falling accidents aside, non-sports-related neck injuries tend to stem from mundane activities of daily living. Sneezing awkwardly falls into this category. So does headbanging to Led Zeppelin. And so does twisting your neck backward to say “Fine, how are you?!” in response to a passing co-worker who asked “Hey, how are you?!”
This is really one of those “chicken or the egg” situations. Which came first: the emotional stress, or the neck stiffness? It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not always clear who started it. Emotional stress causes your muscles to tense up, and most of the stress tends to set up camp in your neck and shoulders. And when you have tense muscles, you’re more likely to be irritable.
So, how can you prevent it?
Be mindful of posture
- Pull your shoulders back. Try not to slouch.
- Avoid sitting for long periods of time, if possible. And don’t spend so much time looking down at the phone.
- If you work at a desk, give yourself some breaks and walk around for a bit. Also consider putting a step stool under your desk — you can plant your feet on it, and that will help your spine stay upright!
Use proper body mechanics
- When you drop something on the floor, don’t bend over and let your head hang when you retrieve the object. Lower yourself down with your knees instead.
Sleep on a bed
- You know those Victorian couches with the curly armrests, floral upholstery, and hand-carved mahogany? Stop sleeping on those.
Find the right pillow
- While we should ideally be sleeping flat on our backs, some of us aren’t going to do it. There’s an ideal pillow for specific sleep positions. Memory foam is good for back sleepers, very thin pillows for stomach sleepers, and firm pillows for side sleepers.
Get a good night’s sleep
- After the last two bullets, this may seem redundant. But seriously, it’s one of the kindest things you can do for your muscles. Go to sleep!
- Six to nine hours is ideal.
Strengthen the neck muscles
- Exercise regularly! Strengthened muscles prevent injury!
Avoid muscular overuse
- Strengthen the muscles, but don’t abuse them! If you’re at the gym and your neck is getting tight, put down the barbells. Go do an exercise that’s less neck-focused until you sort that pain out!
Consider a mouthguard for bruxism
- When your teeth are unable to gnash into each other, you’ll see decreased side effects from the jaw clenching. Go to the dentist — they’ll take you from there!
- Whatever makes you happy, set aside time for it. It will keep that emotional stress at bay. Meditate, listen to music, just do something you enjoy!
So, what can you do about it?
- Massage therapy
Hot and Cold Therapy
- Use one, the other, or both.
- If you choose to use both, start with a hot pack and end with an ice pack. Heat soothes stiffness, and ice will reduce the inflammation.
Range of Motion Exercises
- These can be done either with or without assistance. Chin to chest, side to side, ear to shoulder — all good stretches for the neck!
- Try some alternatives to OTC pain relievers. Turmeric, peppermint oil, and/or CBD are worth a shot!
So, now you know what to do! Always feel welcome to visit your massage therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist or personal trainer when you need some help — but remember how to prevent a stiff neck above all else!
Author, Licensed Massage Therapist
Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.