Can’t turn your head?
Neck pain and stiffness is an annoyingly common malady that most of us have experienced at one time or another. The neck is a fantastically complex system of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that function constantly throughout the day. They allow us to shoulder check, to stare at computer screens for hours, and throw our head back in laughter. With everything we ask of them, it’s no wonder they get stiff and sore sometimes.
Usually, the cause of neck pain is a minor injury resulting in a neck strain. Perhaps a clumsy Bernese jumped on you at the dog park or you almost slipped in an icy parking lot. Sometimes neck pain and stiffness comes on with no apparent cause, leaving you scratching your head as to why.
Turning your head is often an issue when dealing with neck pain. This is usually because one of the many structures in the neck has become irritated or inflamed. Stiffness in the neck in the early phases of an injury is a protective mechanism that helps things calm down.
Symptoms to look for when you can’t turn your head
To understand what’s going on with your neck, it can be helpful to take a few minutes and check in with yourself. First, are you having pain or does it just feel stiff and unwilling to move? If you’re having pain, note where it is.
Next, you can do some gentle movement in front of a mirror. Try looking side to side, as when shoulder checking, and tilting your head towards your shoulder. Notice if your range of motion is different on each side and if you are feeling pain or stiffness in certain areas. Bring your chin to your chest and then your nose to the ceiling. Does it feel achey, or pinched, or limited?
In this process, you may notice a certain muscle is particularly grumpy and it hurts when you stretch away from it, or when it has to help in turning the head. If you have numbness of tingling, it is important to be assessed by a healthcare professional.
Waking up with a sore neck
Sometimes, for seemingly no reason, you wake up with a sore neck. The experience can be frustrating as your stiff and sore neck nags you for the rest of the day. Neck pain in the morning can be caused by a number of things, but sleeping position can be one of the most common.
To date, there is little evidence to support that there is one best way to sleep to prevent neck pain, though lying on your side *might* offer some protection. If you experience morning neck pain only occasionally, it is possible you slept in a different position than usual, and your body is not used to it. If you are frequently waking up with neck pain, it can be useful to note what position you wake up in, and keep track.
Pillows can also play a role in morning neck pain, especially if it’s happening frequently. Unfortunately there have been few studies regarding the best types of pillows for neck pain, but a good rule of thumb is to find one that’s comfortable for you. It can be helpful to find one that keeps your spine relatively neutral. For example, if you like sleeping on your stomach, you will likely have better success with a thin pillow that doesn’t force your head backwards. If you like sleeping on your side, ensure your neck is well supported.
Learning about your ideal sleep position and experimenting with different pillows can help you keep your neck muscles relaxed and comfortable, so you can function at your best every day.
Lingering neck injury
Neck injuries are common and luckily most will get better with time and appropriate care. However, sometimes neck pain can persist far longer than we might expect, and can have serious consequences.
Neck injuries often occur as a result of a car accident. Sudden impacts typically result in the head rapidly accelerating and then decelerating. This can cause excess strain on ligaments, muscles, and joints of the neck and can result in what is called “whiplash”, which is a collection of symptoms that can include neck pain, headaches, dizziness, and jaw pain.
Like other areas of the body, the neck can sustain sprains and strains, which is often the case in sports injury. In sports like football and rugby, players are frequently colliding with each other which can cause sprains in the ligaments connecting the cervical vertebrae together. Neck injuries in sport are not limited to contact sports, however. They are also common in throwing and hitting sports with heavy use of the shoulders, and even long distance running.
Most neck injuries will get better. In certain cases, x-rays or other imaging can be useful in ruling out serious problems, such as cervical fractures or spinal cord injury in acute or chronic neck pain. Unfortunately, research has shown that imaging can rarely tell us the cause of someone’s pain outside of red flags.
Research over the last few decades has revealed many factors that can contribute to lingering neck pain that might surprise you. Some of the biggest risk factors for developing chronic neck pain are a lack of physical activity, poor sleep quality, long periods of computer use, stress, and simply being female. How we think about pain and perceive our injury can also affect how neck pain lasts. Even the social support we get from those around us, at home and work, can play a role.
Poor posture causing a sore neck
While there is no inherently “bad” posture, any posture held for too long can result in pain and stiffness. Our bodies can tolerate some postures longer than others, often because they are postures we naturally adopt frequently anyways, or because they are most efficient for us. As such “good posture” can look a little different for everyone.
Research has shown that computer work is highly associated with neck and upper back pain. The demands of office workers these days typically looks like long periods working on computers, often with minimal breaks. In these cases, desk set-up is very important as it can allow you to sit more comfortably and reduce muscle strain on your neck.
First, ensure your feet are supported and that you can sit comfortably with your back against the chair. When you have your chair at an appropriate height, adjust your computer screen so the top of the screen is at eye level. If you work with multiple screens, make sure you don’t have to sit with your head turned for long periods of time.
Another factor that can be addressed here is length of time in any given posture. Shifting frequently can be helpful in improving long term comfort. Micro-breaks of a few minutes every 30-60 minutes can reduce muscle tension and help you approach work feeling more refreshed. The key is taking active breaks, which can look like a walk around the office or a short desk workout.
How can you loosen up your neck?
Stiff and sore necks are certainly no fun to deal with, especially when it is limiting your ability to move. Remember that neck pain is very common and will usually get better on its own over time with little intervention. It can be helpful to start with pain relief that carries little risk, such as taking a warm shower. Hot packs and ice packs can help dull the sensation and make you feel more comfortable. Incorporating gentle shoulder and neck movements, and even going for a walk can help release muscle tension.
If you feel like the simple strategies above are not cutting it for your kinked neck, it may be time to seek medical advice. Doctors and pharmacists will often recommend ibuprofen or muscle relaxants as over-the-counter pain relief. Remember that these medicines should only be used short term, as they bear other health risks.
Want to fix your neck long term?
If your neck pain hasn’t been getting better with the simple approaches above, seeking out a physiotherapist is your next step. Here at REP, we perform a thorough assessment that looks at the many factors that can be contributing to your neck pain. We narrow down your diagnosis with an in-depth physical exam and ensure you know all your treatment options.
Together, we can build a plan to relieve your pain and improve your movement. This always includes straightforward exercises that target your issue for ongoing relief. We often recommend treatments such as dry needling or IMS to help reset stiff and sensitive muscles. Massage and other manual therapies to help restore mobility to muscles and joints are useful for getting you back to a pain-free life.