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What are neck spasms?
A spasm is an involuntary tightening of muscle in your body. 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 in any part of your body where there’s muscle, including your neck.
There are many possible causes of neck spasms. For example, you might develop a neck spasm if you:
- strain your neck during exercise
- carry something heavy with one or both of your arms
- place a lot of weight on one of your shoulders with a heavy bag
- hold your neck in an unnatural position for an extended period of time, such as when cradling a phone between your shoulder and ear or when sleeping in an odd position
Other common causes of neck spasms include:
- emotional stress
- poor posture, such as slouching or head tilting
- dehydration, which can cause muscle cramps and spasms
Less common but more serious causes of neck spasms include:
- meningitis, a very serious infection that causes swelling in the brain and spinal cord
- cervical spondylosis, a type of arthritis that can affect the spine
- ankylosing spondylitis, a condition that causes vertebrae in the spine to fuse
- spasmodic torticollis, also known as cervical dystonia, which happens when neck muscles tighten involuntarily and make your head twist to one side
- spinal stenosis, which happens when open spaces in the spine narrow
- temporomandibular joint disorders, also known as TMJs or TMDs, which affect the jaw and muscles that surround it
- trauma from accidents or falls
- herniated disc
If you experience a neck spasm, you’ll feel a sudden and sharp pain in one or more parts of your neck, deep in the muscle tissue. The affected muscle might also feel hard or tight. It might be painful to move your neck around.
Most common, nonserious causes of neck spasms can be treated without medical intervention. If you think you might have a serious neck injury or medical condition, make an appointment with your doctor.
In most cases, gently stretching your neck can help ease stiffness, soreness, and spasms.
Try these three easy neck stretches at home or work:
Simple neck stretch
- Sit or stand with your head looking forward.
- Gently turn your head to the right.
- Lightly place your right hand on the back your head and allow the weight of your hand to push your chin down toward the right side of your chest.
- Relax your muscles and hold your head in this position for 15 seconds.
- Repeat this stretch three times on each side.
- Sit or stand with your arms hanging down at your side.
- Reach your hands behind your back and grasp your left wrist with your right hand.
- Gently pull your left arm down and tilt your head to the right side until you feel a light stretch in your neck.
- Hold this stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat this stretch three times on each side.
Using one or more home remedies might help relieve neck spasms.
Over-the-counter pain relievers
To reduce neck pain from a neck spasm, it might help to take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, such as:
- aspirin (Bufferin)
- ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- naproxen sodium (Aleve)
- acetaminophen (Tylenol)
Many OTC pain relievers ease muscle tension by reducing inflammation that can worsen the pain of a neck spasm. Read and follow the dosage directions provided on the package of the pain reliever. Some pain relievers can be harmful if used in excess.
Applying an ice pack or cold compress to sore muscles in your neck might provide relief from pain, especially in the first couple of days after you experience a neck spasm.
Don’t put ice or ice packs directly on your skin. Instead, wrap an ice pack or bag of ice in a thin cloth or towel. Apply the wrapped ice to the sore part of your neck for a maximum of 10 minutes at a time.
Reapply the wrapped ice as often as once an hour for the first 48 to 72 hours after a neck spasm.
Heat therapy might also help soothe pain in your neck. For example, you might find it helpful to take a warm shower or press a warm cloth, warm water bottle, or heating pad to your neck.
To avoid burns, always check the temperature before you apply heat therapy to your neck. If you’re using a warm water bottle or heating pad, place a thin cloth between it and your skin. Avoid falling asleep with a heating pad on your skin.
Massage is another home treatment that might help relieve neck pain and spasms. Applying pressure to your neck muscles can promote relaxation and relieve tension and pain. One
You can give yourself a massage by pressing gently but firmly into the tight part of your neck muscle and moving your fingers in a small circular motion. Or ask a friend or family member to help massage the area.
Rest is an important part of the recovery process, but total inactivity is rarely recommended.
Try to keep moving, while taking time off from strenuous activities. For example, avoid lifting heavy objects, twisting your neck or upper back, or taking part in contact sports until your symptoms subside. Stick with gentle stretches and other light activities that you can do without making the pain in your neck worse.
You might experience neck spasms at night if you:
- sleep in a position that strains your neck
- use a mattress or pillow that doesn’t provide enough support
- clench or grind your teeth while sleeping
Consider using a feather or memory foam pillow that conforms to the contours of your head and neck. Your pillow should be supportive but not too high or stiff. A firm mattress might also help.
If you think you might be clenching or grinding your teeth at night, make an appointment with your dentist. They might recommend a mouth guard. This device can help protect your teeth, gums, and jaw from the harmful effects of clenching and grinding.
In most cases, neck spasms in children are caused by muscle strain. For example, your child might have strained their neck while:
- spending long periods of time looking at a smartphone, computer, or television
- playing sports or taking part in other physical activities
- carrying a heavy backpack full of school supplies
- sleeping in a position that strains their neck
Mild cases of neck pain and spasms can usually be treated with rest, OTC pain relievers, and other home remedies.
If you suspect that your child has injured their neck in a fall or car accident, or while taking part in a contact sport or other high-impact activity, call 911. They might have a spinal cord injury.
If they have neck stiffness and a fever over 100.0°F (37.8°C), take them to the nearest emergency department. It might be a sign of meningitis.
Muscle stiffness and pain can be caused by emotional stress, as well as physical stress. If you develop a neck spasm at a time in your life when you’re coping with high levels of anxiety or stress, the two might be connected.
If your neck spasm is linked to anxiety or stress, relaxation techniques might help ease your symptoms. For example, it might help to:
- practice deep breathing exercises
- take part in a session of yoga or tai chi
- get a massage or acupuncture treatment
- take a relaxing bath
- go for a walk
It’s normal to feel anxious sometimes. But if you frequently experience anxiety, stress, or mood swings that cause significant distress or interfere with your daily life, talk to your doctor.
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor might refer you to a mental health specialist for diagnosis and treatment. They might recommend medication, counseling, or other treatments.
Some causes of neck spasms are more serious than others. Be sure to call your doctor if:
- your neck pain is the result of an injury or fall
- you develop numbness in your back, limbs, or other body parts
- you have trouble moving your limbs or lose control of your bladder or bowels
- your symptoms make it difficult to sleep at night or take part in normal activities
- your symptoms don’t get better after a week
- your symptoms return after subsiding
Seek emergency medical attention if you develop symptoms of meningitis, including a stiff neck and high fever over 100.0°F (37.8°C). Other potential symptoms of meningitis include:
- purple areas on your skin that look like bruises
Your doctor can help diagnose the cause of your symptoms and recommend an appropriate treatment plan.