Neck Muscle Spasms: Why They Happen and How to Stop Them


Neck muscle spasms can can be debilitating, when they occur, it can cause intense neck pain, a loss in your normal range of motion or even torticollis. The pain of neck spasms can range from a dull ache to sharp, stabbing pain.  Most people experience waking up with a painful, stiff neck that makes it difficult to turn the head. 

The likely culprit of this is a neck muscle spasm, and the pain and discomfort can last for hours or even days.  A neck spasm usually comes on suddenly but can sometimes creep up gradually and come along with a headache, dizziness, and vision changes that arise from the inability to hold the head in a neutral position.

Understanding the Muscles in the Neck to Understand Neck Muscle Spasms

The muscles in the head and neck perform many important jobs.  The most prominent role is movement, but these muscles control other vital functions such as speech, chewing, swallowing, facial expression, and even breathing.  Your neck muscles attach to various bones of the spine, skull, shoulders, collarbones, and thorax.  Each muscle is supplied by nerves to control movement and blood vessels to provide energy and nutrition to the muscle tissue.  

Think about the movements your head can make:

  • Looking up and down (nodding “yes”)
  • Rotating from left to right (shaking your head “no”)
  • Tilting your ear to your shoulder on each side

Each of these movements requires a complex and coordinated action of the muscles of your head and neck.  Everyday tasks such as looking over your shoulder to check your blind spot while driving, keeping your eye on the ball before taking a baseball swing, and swallowing your food require correct neck muscle function.

What is Causing my Neck Muscle Spasms?

When the muscles of your neck spasm, there can be a broad range of contributing factors that lead up to the pain and loss of movement you’re experiencing.  Sometimes, a muscle may spasm when trying to protect itself from overuse or instability. Muscles may also receive improper nerve signals causing them to spasm.  Some of the most common reasons why this might be happening include:

  • A strain of the neck muscles during exercise
  • Carrying a heavy bag or purse over one shoulder
  • Holding your neck in an abnormal or awkward position for an extended period (such as falling asleep on the couch or cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder)
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Poor posture – slouching, looking down at your phone, propping your head up with your fist
  • Old, non-supportive pillow or mattress
  • Dehydration
  • Osteoarthritis – degeneration of the joints that connect the vertebrae in your neck can influence how the muscles need to contract to keep the neck stable which can lead to spasms
  • Herniated disc – if an intervertebral disc in your neck herniates, it will create inflammation that may affect the nearby muscles
  • Whiplash injury
  • TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorders
  • Spasmodic torticollis – this condition causes neck muscles to tighten and twist your head to one side involuntarily

What Are My Treatment Options?

When you are experiencing neck muscle spasms there is a wide range of care options available to you.  Some options are great for short-term symptomatic relief, but the priority should be to address the underlying cause of the problem if there’s the hope of finding a lasting solution.  If you are dealing with neck spasm, the following things might be recommended to you:

Stretches for Neck Muscle Spasms

Specific and gentle stretches that target tight and tender muscles can help reduce spasm.  Finding stretches for the scalene and sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles may be particularly helpful.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications

OTC pain relievers can help to ease symptoms of neck spasms by temporarily reducing inflammation.


Icing sore muscles is usually recommended in the first two to three days following an injury or neck spasm.  Ice can numb sore, painful areas and help to cool down hot, inflamed areas.


If your neck spasm has become chronic, heat therapy might soothe the pain and help you to regain normal range of motion if you have residual neck stiffness.

Massage therapy

Whether you identify tender areas on your own or visit a massage therapist, working on tense muscles and trigger points can bring you some relief.

Upper Cervical Chiropractic Care

Spinal misalignments, particularly at the top of the neck where the segments are the most freely movable and prone to injury, can easily cause neck muscle spasms.

Getting to the Root Cause of Neck Muscle Spasms

One thing that the majority of causes of neck muscle spasms outlined above have in common is the potential to be related to a spinal misalignment.  The area of the neck that is most vulnerable to shifting out of proper position is where the neck meets the base of the skull.  The vertebra at this vital junction is called the atlas, or C1, and it is shaped differently from all the rest because it has a unique job to do.  The atlas:

  1. Balances the weight of the head (approximately 12-13 pounds in the average adult) above it.
  2. Is extremely mobile to accommodate the freedom of movement of our head.
  3. Lacks the discs and interlocking facet joints that the rest of the spine has to give it protection and stability.
  4. Protects a critical part of your central nervous system – the brainstem – which acts as a switchboard for signals traveling over nerves between the brain and body.

When the atlas misaligns, the rest of the neck is forced into a stressed position to keep the head balanced and the eyes level.  This is a common reason for neck muscle spasms, pain and reduced motion. By gently and precisely realigning the atlas, patients who choose upper cervical chiropractic care typically see results that are effective and long-lasting.  

Upper Cervical Chiropractic and Neck Muscle Spasms

The research related to neck muscle spasms and upper cervical chiropractic suggests that upper cervical chiropractic care, which focuses on the alignment of the uppermost vertebrae in the spine, may be effective in managing chronic neck pain and associated symptoms.

  • A retrospective case series found that an upper cervical low-force chiropractic procedure had a positive impact on neck pain and disability outcomes.
  • Another study demonstrated that the correction of upper cervical misalignments through chiropractic adjustments can be an effective treatment strategy for chronic neck pain, including improvements in muscle strength and range of motion.
  • Additionally, a prospective, multicenter, cohort study reported that upper cervical chiropractic care has many important health benefits including the reduction in neck muscle spasms.
  • Furthermore, there is evidence of an association between mechanical neck pain and dysfunction of the muscles of the cervical spine.

These findings suggest that upper cervical chiropractic care may be a viable approach for addressing neck muscle spasms and related symptoms. Find an upper cervical specialist near you to get to the underlying cause of your neck muscle spasms.

Find An Upper Cervical Doctor in Your Area

to schedule a consultation today.

Find an Upper Cervical Specialist In Your Area

to schedule a consultation today.

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The content and materials provided in this web site are for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to supplement or comprise a medical diagnosis or other professional opinion, or to be used in lieu of a consultation with a physician or competent health care professional for medical diagnosis and/or treatment. All content and materials including research papers, case studies and testimonials summarizing patients' responses to care are intended for educational purposes only and do not imply a guarantee of benefit. Individual results may vary, depending upon several factors including age of the patient, severity of the condition, severity of the spinal injury, and duration of time the condition has been present.