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If you’ve ever woken up with stiffness and pain on just one side of your neck, you’re not alone. Often called a “crick in your neck” or a “stiff neck,” this type of pain is considered common and is typically not a cause for concern. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s no big deal or that you don’t want to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

If you frequently wake up with this type of neck pain, or if the pain doesn’t go away, you may be dealing with an underlying condition. Then again, it could be a sign that you are in serious need of a supportive office chair or a new pillow and mattress

What causes a crick in your neck?

Most of the time, a crick in your neck is caused by muscle strain or tension. This strain or tension may be caused by daily activities. Sleeping in an uncomfortable position, bending over for long periods of time, or straining to lift heavy objects (such as you might during a weight lifting session) can all be culprits. Staring down at your phone or sitting uncomfortably during a long flight can also cause this type of neck stiffness.

Pain and stiffness on just one side of your neck are the tell-tale signs of what most people call a “crick” in the neck. Your neck may feel so stiff that you have trouble turning it or looking to your side. You may also feel a sharp pain in your neck when you try to adjust your position or look straight ahead. Oftentimes your neck pain or stiffness comes along with a tingling sensation in your arm or hand, similar to how it feels when your limbs “fall asleep.” This can be an indicator that the crick in your neck is connected to nerve compression or a pinched nerve.

Stress, muscle weakness and muscle spasms can all put you at a higher risk for developing a crick in your neck. Studies have found that women, people who have had prior neck injuries and people with a history of lower back pain all have a higher risk of experiencing any kind of neck pain. Chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia can also increase your risk of neck pain.

Underlying conditions that cause a crick in your neck

It’s not at all unusual to have neck pain in these muscles once in a while, like when you wake up in the morning or after a long day at work. But if you regularly wake up with neck pain or develop neck pain and stiffness during the day, it could be your body telling you there is something else going on.

Conditions that can trigger frequent neck pain include:

  • Osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Whiplash or other form of neck injury
  • Disc degeneration in your upper spine
  • Neck muscle strain
  • Neck joint strain
  • Spinal stenosis

These conditions require the assistance of a medical professional so that you can get diagnosed and treat your symptoms appropriately. If you are experiencing a crick in your neck several times a week or if you have ongoing neck pain, you should speak with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment

“Most of the time, the pain and stiffness from a crick in your neck will go away on their own within a couple of hours. In the meantime, there are some home remedies that you can use to try to get relief from your neck pain.”

4 ways to get rid of a crick in your neck

1. Heat

If the crick in your neck is caused by muscle soreness or tension, heat therapy might be the quickest way to feel better. Heat can increase circulation to the area, delivering fresh blood to muscles that are tired or aching. Heat can also stimulate your nerves, delivering a feeling of comfort instead of pain.

If you have an electronic heating pad available, you can safely apply one to your neck for 5 to 20 minutes at a time. If you don’t have that kind of device, you can use a hot water bottle applied to your neck. In a pinch, you can even fill an old sock with rice and heat it up in the microwave for about 90 seconds to create a warm compress. If you really don’t have anything else at your disposal, a washcloth with warm water might do the trick, but avoid skin damage by being careful with how hot you make it and how long you use it for.

2. Pain relief creams and ointments

Pain relief creams and ointments use botanical and pharmaceutical ingredients to soothe your neck muscles while numbing pain. If you have muscle stiffness causing a crick in your neck, the best type of pain relief creams may contain cooling menthol or warm capsaicin ingredients. You may also want to look for pain relief ointments that contain a pain reliever, such as topical lidocaine or a compound of active, prescription-strength pharmaceutical ingredients.

3. Gentle stretching and yoga

If your pain is mostly caused by muscle stiffness, you may want to stretch the affected muscles to relieve the crick in your neck. The upper trapezius muscles are a group of muscles that are a common cause of cricks in the neck. A quick Google search for upper trapezius stretches is usually a reasonable starting point.

You can try laying down and slowly tilting your head to the side, breathing deeply through the stretches. You can also try lifting your arms up, slowly and carefully, while you look from side to side. Certain yoga poses, such as downward facing dog or mountain pose, may also help relieve your discomfort.

4. Over-the-counter pain relief

If the pain and stiffness are really limiting your mobility, you may want to try an oral pain reliever to keep a crick in your neck from ruining your day. A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug available over-the-counter is usually enough to do the trick. Naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil) are good options.  

How can you prevent a crick in your neck?

If you are frequently experiencing pain and stiffness in your neck, it’s time to get proactive. Some simple tips to avoid getting a crick in your neck include:

Invest in good sleep

Invest in a mattress with strong back support. Many of the “bed-in-a-box” options that have become popular in the last few years are memory foam only, which means that while some may be super soft and cozy (great!), they don’t offer strong back support or the back support degrades quickly over time.

Purchase a mattress that’s as firm as you can reasonably sleep on, keeping in mind that all mattresses get softer with use. If a new mattress isn’t in your budget anytime soon, at least consider a pillow with neck support.

Change your sleeping position

Sleeping on your back or side is what chiropractors and doctors recommend for your back. Of course, it can be hard to change up the position that you sleep in, especially if you’ve been sleeping a certain way for many years.

Try out a few new positions, making sure your back and neck are fully comfortable, as you try to catch some Zzzs — you may be surprised to find something new that feels good for you.

Consider your digital habits

If you’re spending long hours staring at a phone or computer screen, it could be affecting your posture and hurting your neck. Use an ergonomic chair with back support, cradle your cervical spine with a neck pillow, or simply put your phone down more often during the day. Make sure your computer monitor is at or above eye level when you sit down to do a few hours of office work.

A condition called “text neck,” also known as “tech neck,” is becoming more prevalent among adults as well as adolescents. That’s because looking down at your phone or other digital devices for several hours at a time puts extra strain on your cervical spine.

Tech neck is also linked to headache symptoms. If you think this could be the cause of your neck pain, you may want to look into devices that can help. Classic posture straps that distribute the weight of your head across your shoulders, or Bluetooth-enabled posture correcting devices that vibrate to remind you to sit up straight are among the relatively affordable options.

Dr. Jacob, MD