Crick in the Neck: Causes and Stretches for Relief

Many people experience a crick in the neck because of muscle strain or other issues. Get simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.

Published Date: Dec 16, 2022

Our Hinge Health Experts

Cody Anderson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Anderson is a Hinge Health physical therapist with special interests in orthopedics, post-operative recovery, and movement optimism.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with subspecialty training in hip and knee replacement, as well as advanced clinical expertise in spine care. Dr. Lee oversees the Expert Medical Opinion program at Hinge Health.

Slept on a new pillow? Painted the ceiling all weekend? Spent hours bent over your laptop? Any of these activities could cause a crick in your neck, a term for stiff, painful neck muscles.

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. Less commonly, a crick in the neck can also signal an irritated joint.

Whatever the cause, that painful, tight feeling - like you can't comfortably turn, move, or even hold up your head - can put a damper on your usual activities and hobbies.

You can usually relieve a crick in the neck with at-home remedies, especially gentle stretches. Movement is a key way to heal and prevent future pain.

In this resource, we'll explain what causes a crick in the neck and how to get relief, including effective neck stretches and strengthening exercises from our physical therapists.  

Neck Pain: A Hinge Health Perspective

If there's one thing we want you to know about the crick in your neck, it's this: There are always things you can do to get back to doing what you love and give you pain relief.

You may have tight neck muscles. You may have a diagnosis of disc degeneration, spinal stenosis, or arthritis. You'll read about these possible causes below but remember: No matter what's involved in your neck pain, you're not stuck. Your condition is not impossible to change. How do we know this? As one example, in a study of 1,000 people without any neck pain, 88% had disc bulges on an MRI.

This means your imaging doesn't entirely impact your symptoms. It's a possible contribution to your pain, but it's not the only factor. You may not be able to control every issue involved in your neck pain, but you do have the power to change some important things. You can always do something to improve your neck pain - and that often starts with moving more.

As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine.

What Causes a Crick in Your Neck?

Your Muscles

A crick in the neck is usually from muscles that are overworked from holding a particular position for too long. A typical example: doing work that causes 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. "Plus, using your arms may make the upper shoulder muscles sore. They connect into the base of your neck and provide support."

This initial soreness signals your pain system to protect the area, so it tightens the muscles of the neck, shoulder, and upper back to limit movement. This is a great short-term defense against injury, but for long-term recovery, you've got to get moving again.

Another common cause: sitting in a forward, rounded, or hunched position for hours while you stare at your computer, watch TV, read a book, or go for a long drive. This strains the levator scapulae muscles, which run down the sides of your neck, as well as the postural muscles of the back, which support the neck to help you stay upright. "When that happens, you can't turn your head as much side to side," explains Dr. Anderson. 

Your Joints

Less commonly, a crick in your neck may be related to an issue with your joints, such as:

Changes in the spine. Your spine consists of vertically stacked bones (called vertebrae), with a strong fibrous disc between each to provide cushioning. Also running down the spine are interlocking joints (facet joints), which help your spine move. As you age, it is common for these structures to slowly change. These changes are sometimes called spondylosis, or a form of arthritis.

Spinal stenosis. As your spine loses cushioning and facet joints rub together, new bone can grow in the region of the facet joints. This can narrow the space for nerves to pass through, which at times can irritate the nerves.

A herniated disc. Sometimes a disc in the neck can bulge. This can irritate the spinal nerves due to inflammation in the area or creating pressure on the nerve . It may cause neck pain that radiates to the shoulder and arms. Radiating pain feels like tingling pins and needles.

How to Treat a Crick in Your Neck

A heating pad and stretching is all some people need to get over a crick in the neck, says Dr. Anderson. Other times, you may benefit from physical therapy or targeted exercises. Here are common ways your healthcare provider might suggest treating a crick in your 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 the heating pad for 20 minutes on, 30 minutes off. "Check your skin after the first two minutes to make sure the heat is not too much," says Dr. Anderson.

  • Stretch tight muscles. "Your body tightens muscles because it's trying to protect the 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.

  • Physical therapy. This is typically the first nonsurgical treatment doctors prescribe for neck pain, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. 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 the upper back are involved, we'd start by building those up, so we have a better base of support for the neck." You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Massage. Research shows that massage therapy provides immediate relief to neck and shoulder pain by increasing blood flow, loosening connective tissues, and improving muscle flexibility.

  • Strengthen your neck. People tend to stretch and forget about strengthening, says Dr. Anderson. "We think of our neck as this fragile thing that doesn't need to be stronger, but isometric exercises can strengthen our neck and make it less vulnerable." Isometric strengthening involves engaging the muscle against resistance while holding it in a steady position. Hold each move below for 5 seconds, doing 10 repetitions. When you're ready, progress to holding each for 10 seconds.  Do these daily, or at least a few times a week.  

  • Put your hand on the side of your head and push into it, as if bending your head toward your shoulder. Repeat on the other side.

  • Put a hand on your forehead and look down while pushing into it (to improve flexion).

  • Put your hand on the back of your head and look up while pushing into it (to improve extension)

  • Put your hand against your temple and turn into it (to improve rotation). Repeat on the other side

  • Pain medications. NSAIDs such as naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil), and aspirin are a first-line remedy for neck pain. For acute pain, your doctor may prescribe them in combination with other medications, such as acetaminophen, oral corticosteroids, or muscle relaxants. 

  • Modify activity.  You may want to adjust your usual activities for a couple of days to give overworked muscles a break. Remember: Healing happens mostly from moving, not resting. Exercise, stretches, and daily activity are key to long-term recovery and prevent future pain.

Exercises for a Crick in Neck

Here are some exercises that help relieve stiff, painful neck muscles. "I encourage people to incorporate them into posture breaks during their work day, in the morning and afternoon, so they take a break from holding their posture or hunching over a computer," says Dr. Anderson. 

Head Nods Look as far up as you can, then down as far as you can. This helps get the neck joint moving by using extension and flexion. 

Chin tuck This stretches out the neck at the base of the head. It also works the deep neck flexor muscles (in the front), which help support our posture.

Rows Pulling the arms back helps build up on the upper back postural muscles that support the neck.

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, closer to eye level, rather than on your lap. That eases strain on the neck, and may prevent "text neck," the pain you can get in your neck from looking down at your phone for too long, says Dr. Anderson.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does a crick in your neck last?

Most neck pain heals in one to two weeks, with at-home remedies such as a heating pad and stretching. Sometimes pain returns with certain activities, so keep your neck strong and flexible with exercises (such as those recommended above). In some cases, neck pain can start to last several months or more, which may be a sign of a condition like arthritis or that other factors (e.g., stress or sleep issues) are contributing to your pain. Remember: Neck pain isn't something you're "stuck" with. There are always things you can do to get relief and feel better.

Can a crick in your neck be serious?

It's usually not. Most cases are caused by overused muscles, often from doing work in an awkward position (think: cleaning a high cabinet). But some cases can be caused by an injury (car accident) or joint irritation. Most of these cases still respond to regular exercise, physical therapy, medications, and other conservative treatments.  

Should I see a doctor?

Most neck pain gets better in a week or with at-home therapies, but sometimes it's important to check in with your doctor. One reason to see your doctor is if you're not improving. Neck pain is rarely serious, but another reason to see a doctor is if you experience any of the following:

  • Dizziness, sudden falls, loss of balance

  • Difficulty speaking or swallowing

  • Symptoms occur after a trauma or impact

  • Pain that radiates down the arm or legs or difficulty moving those limbs 

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

  • Headache with nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light

  • Unexplained weight loss, fever or chills

  • Pain is continuous, persistent, or severe or stays the same whether you rest or move 

Can you pop a crick in your neck? 

Popping joints is not "bad" for you and does not cause lasting effects on the joint. If you're moving and stretching your neck and it happens to pop, there's no reason for concern. However, if you're using self-manipulation to get your neck to pop, you may be doing it incorrectly. Manipulating the neck is best left to trained professionals like physical therapists or chiropractors. If you're tempted to pop your neck because it feels stiff, do exercise therapy instead.

Learn More About Hinge Health for Neck Pain Relief

Our digital programs for back and joint pain are offered for free through benefit providers. Click here to see if you're eligible.

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.

References: 

  1. Park, D. K. (2021, April). Cervical Spondylosis (Arthritis of the Neck).  OrthoInfo - American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://www.orthoinfo.org/en/diseases--conditions/cervical-spondylosis-arthritis-of-the-neck/

  2. Nakashima, H., Yukawa, Y., Suda, K., Yamagata, M., Ueta, T., & Kato, F. (2015). Abnormal Findings on Magnetic Resonance Images of the Cervical Spines in 1211 Asymptomatic Subjects. Spine, 40(6), 392-398. doi:10.1097/brs.0000000000000775

  3. Dydyk, A. M., Ngnitewe Massa, R., & Mesfin, F. B. (2022). Disc Herniation. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441822/

  4. Kong, L. J., Zhan, H. S., Cheng, Y. W., Yuan, W. A., Chen, B., & Fang, M. (2013). Massage Therapy for Neck and Shoulder Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, 1-10. doi:10.1155/2013/613279

  5. Neck pain: Overview. (2019). Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK338120/

  6. Park, D. K. Neck Pain. (2021, September). OrthoInfo - American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://www.orthoinfo.org/en/diseases--conditions/neck-pain/

  7. Anatomy of the Spine. (n.d.). Mayfield Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayfieldclinic.com/pe-anatspine.htm