Crick in the Neck: Causes and Stretches for Relief
Discover what causes a crick in the neck, and its symptoms, and find relief through expert-recommended exercises and treatments.
We've all experienced it at some point — a sudden, sharp pain in the neck that makes simple movements seem like a daunting task. Whether it’s from sleeping on a new pillow, painting a ceiling, or bending over a laptop for hours on end, a crick in the neck can disrupt your daily activities and leave you searching for relief.
“A crick in the neck usually happens when you strain your neck muscles and muscles that support it, like those in the shoulders and upper back,” says Cody Anderson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. This often happens from things like sleeping in an awkward position or doing a sudden movement that stresses your neck muscles. Less commonly, a crick in the neck can also signal an irritated joint.
A crick in the neck, while uncomfortable, is usually temporary and can be addressed with at-home treatments. Here, learn more about what causes a crick in the neck and how to get relief, including effective neck stretches and strengthening exercises from our physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Cody Anderson, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Is a Crick in the Neck?
A crick in the neck refers to a sudden, sharp pain or stiffness in the neck, often resulting from muscle strain or tension. It can make it challenging to move your neck comfortably, and the discomfort may be accompanied by limited range of motion. While a crick in the neck is usually not serious, it can be uncomfortable. The good news? There's a lot you can do to improve your symptoms and get relief.
Symptoms of a Crick in the Neck
Some people describe a crick in the neck as a painful, tight feeling. Others say it's difficult to turn, move, or even hold up their head. While symptoms of a crick in the neck can vary slightly, they often include:
Neck pain. This can be sharp or dull pain, and it may be localized to a specific area or radiate to other parts of the neck.
Limited range of motion, or a reduced ability to turn your head or tilt it in certain directions.
Muscle knots or tenderness.
Shoulder pain in some cases.
What Causes a Crick in the Neck?
Many different factors can contribute to a crick in the neck, including:
Muscle strain. A crick in the neck is most often related to muscles that are overworked from holding a particular position for too long. Typical examples: hunching over a computer all day, being in the car too long, or doing work that forces you to look up and use your arms, like painting a ceiling, cleaning a gutter, or trimming trees. "You're holding the neck at the end of its range of motion for a long period," says Dr. Anderson. It's not that any of these activities are bad. It's just that holding the same position for too long tightens muscles.
Neck sprain. Sprains occur when ligaments — tough, fibrous tissues that connect bones to each other — are stretched or torn. Ligaments provide stability to joints. When a neck sprain occurs, it can lead to pain, stiffness, and limited range of motion in the neck. Injuries related to a fall or whiplash are common causes of neck sprain.
Changes in the spine. Your entire spine consists of vertically stacked bones (called vertebrae), with strong and fibrous intervertebral discs between each to provide cushioning. As you age, it is common for these structures to slowly change. In many cases, these changes cause no symptoms. Sometimes, though, they contribute to things like osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, or a herniated disc, which, when combined with other factors, can contribute to a crick in the neck.
Crick in the Neck: A Hinge Health Perspective
A crick in the neck is not an official medical diagnosis. But there are many neck conditions that can contribute to a crick in the neck. Whether you have a diagnosis for ongoing neck pain or you've had a crick in the neck for 24 hours, it's common to assume that rest is best. This is not the case, however.
Although movement can cause a slight and temporary uptick in pain, it's actually one of the best things you can do for neck pain. "We now know that things can actually become worse with too much rest," says Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. "Not moving is riskier than moving in spite of some pain." As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine.
How to Treat a Crick in the Neck
You're probably wondering, how do I get rid of a crick in my neck? "Sometimes, all you need is a heating pad and some stretching to get over a crick in the neck," says Dr. Anderson. Other times, you may benefit from physical therapy or targeted exercises. Everyone is different, but here are some common ways to treat a crick in the neck.
Use a heating pad. "We're trying to loosen up or relax stiff muscles or joints, and the heating pad is really helpful for that," says Dr. Anderson. Use a heat pad for up to 20 minutes at a time, and "check your skin after the first two minutes to make sure the heat is not too much," he adds.
Stretch tight muscles. "Your body tightens muscles because it thinks it needs to protect a specific area,” says Dr. Anderson. "By stretching, you’re telling your body, 'I don't want this muscle to be tight anymore. It’s okay to move this.'" See below for some good exercises.
Do physical therapy. PT can be a very effective treatment for all kinds of neck pain, including a stubborn crick in the neck. A physical therapist will design exercises targeted to your specific issues, strengthening and stretching key areas, says Dr. Anderson. "For example, if the postural muscles in your upper back are tight or weak, we'd start by building those up so you have a better base of support for your neck." You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
Get a massage. Research shows that massage therapy can provide immediate relief for neck and shoulder pain by increasing blood flow, loosening connective tissues, and improving muscle flexibility. This can provide the relief you need to comfortably stretch and strengthen the muscles in and around your neck.
Strengthen your neck. People tend to stretch and forget about strengthening, says Dr. Anderson. "We think of the neck as this fragile thing that doesn't need to be stronger, but exercise can strengthen your neck and make it less susceptible to things like pain."
Use over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for neck pain. It's important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.
Modify your activities. Although gentle movement is one of the most important tools for relieving pain from a crick in the neck, you may want to adjust some of your usual activities — especially higher intensity ones — for a couple of days to give overworked muscles a break. Healing happens mostly from moving — not resting — but it's okay to scale back temporarily.
Exercises for a Crick in the Neck
The above are some exercises that help relieve stiff, painful neck muscles. “I encourage people to use these as ‘movement snacks’ during their work day so they have to take a break from holding their posture or hunching over a computer,” says Dr. Anderson.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
If you are prone to getting a crick in the neck or have one and never want to deal with it again, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of getting a crick in the neck in the future.
Switch positions frequently. Hinge Health physical therapists often remind people that there’s no such thing as perfect posture. Rather, your next position is your best position. It’s important to make it a habit to change positions throughout the day. Even if you have to sit at a desk for most of the day, shifting positions, alternating between crossing and uncrossing your legs, and adjusting where your computer monitor sits can go a long way.
Take breaks. Whether you spend most of your day sitting, standing, lying down, or walking, take regular breaks to stretch to prevent neck pain from setting in.
Find a sleeping position that works. Just like posture, there’s no right or wrong sleeping position. But if you wake up with neck pain frequently, it might help to adjust your sleeping position or the pillow you use.
Keep it moving. Regular exercise — especially incorporating exercises for your neck and shoulders — may help prevent stiffness and a crick in the neck from developing.
Stay hydrated. Proper hydration supports overall health, including the health of your muscles and joints.
PT Tip: Hold Your Phone High
If you’re using your smartphone for a long period of time, try to hold it in front of you at (or close to) eye level, rather than on your lap or close to your midsection. That eases strain on the neck, and may prevent “tech neck,” the pain you can get in your neck from looking down at a device like your phone for too long, says Dr. Anderson.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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