A spasm is an involuntary tightening of muscle in a given body part. It often causes intense pain. This pain can last for minutes, hours, or days after the muscle relaxes and the spasm subsides. Spasms can happen anywhere there is muscle on your body, including your neck.
When you experience a neck spasm, you’ll feel a sudden, sharp pain in one or more parts of your neck, deep in the muscle tissue. You may also notice that the affected muscle seems hard or tight. It may be painful to move your neck around.
Most common, nonserious causes of neck spasms can be treated without medical intervention. Keep reading to learn helpful exercises and home remedies you can use to relieve your neck spasms now.
Try these three easy stretches at home or work to relieve neck pain and spasms:
Simple neck stretch
- Sit or stand with your head looking forward.
- Holding your hands loosely behind your head, use your neck to turn your head to the right.
- Use your arms to gently push your chin to the right side of your chest.
- Stay relaxed and hold your head to your chest for 15 seconds.
- Repeat this stretch three times on each side.
- Sit or stand with both hands held together behind your back.
- Push one shoulder down and tilt your head to the opposite side until you feel a gentle stretch in your neck.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds and then return to the starting position.
- Repeat this stretch three times on each side.
Head lift with neck curl
- Lie on your back on a flat surface with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground.
- Tuck your chin into your chest and lift your head up about three inches off of the floor while keeping your shoulders flat on the floor.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds.
- Repeat five times.
- As you continue doing this exercise, try working your way up to holding your head up for 20 to 30 seconds.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
OTC pain relievers may help reduce neck pain. These include:
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- naproxen sodium (Aleve)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
OTC pain relievers ease muscle tension by reducing inflammation that can worsen the pain of a neck spasm. Follow the dosage directions on the medication you choose to use closely. Some OTC pain relievers can be harmful when used in excess.
Ice has long been used as a pain-relieving treatment. Experts say that ice works as a short-term pain reliever for the muscles, especially when used repeatedly over hours or days. While the exact pain-relieving properties of ice are not clear, it appears that ice dulls nerve action and so can stop or reduce the severity of muscles spasms, including those in the neck.
Ice packs or cubes of ice put in a bag should never be put directly on the skin. Instead, place your ice pack or bag of ice between the folds of a towel. Apply for a maximum of 10 minutes at a time. You can reapply as often as once an hour.
Massage is another effective short-term home treatment for neck spasms. Pressure to the neck muscles can promote relaxation and relieve tension, easing a neck spasm. One study from 2014 found that even short massage treatments can greatly reduce neck pain.
You can give yourself a massage by pressing gently but firmly into the tight part of your neck and making small circles with your fingers. Or, ask a friend or family member to do so.
There are many possible causes for neck spasms. Some common causes include:
- placing a lot of weight on one shoulder with a heavy bag
- carrying something very heavy with one or both arms
- placing the neck in an unnatural position for an extended period of time, such as when cradling a phone between the shoulder and ear, or keeping your neck in an odd position when sleeping
- cervical spondylosis, a condition marked by degeneration in the spinal cord
- emotional stress
- strain during exercise
- poor posture (slouching or tilting the head)
Less common but more serious causes of neck spasms include:
- meningitis, a very serious infection causing swelling in the brain and spinal cord
- ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory condition that causes some vertebrae in the spine to fuse
- cervical dystonia, also known as torticollis, a condition where neck muscles tighten involuntarily and make the head twist to one side
- spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the open spaces in the spine
- temporomandibular joint disorders, known as TMJ or TMD, which affect the jaw and muscles that surround it
- trauma from accidents or falls
- herniated disk
Some causes of neck spasm are more serious than others. Be sure to call your doctor right away if your symptoms don’t get better after a week or if your neck pain is the result of an injury or fall. You should also call your doctor if neck pain or spasms keep you up at night.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of meningitis, you should seek emergency medical attention:
- sudden high fever and chills
- stiff neck
- purple areas on the skin that look like bruises