Muscle spasms can happen anywhere in the body. However, when they occur in your neck, it can cause intense neck pain. Moreover, it can result in a loss in your normal range of motion. 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
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 Spasm?
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
- 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 have a neck that is tight and painful due to muscle spasm, 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:
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.
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 muscles to spasm.
Getting to the Root Cause of Neck Spasm
One thing that the majority of causes of neck 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:
- Balances the weight of the head (approximately 12-13 pounds in the average adult) above it.
- Is extremely mobile to accommodate the freedom of movement of our head.
- Lacks the discs and interlocking facet joints that the rest of the spine has to give it protection and stability.
- 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 can easily be the underlying cause for neck muscles that go into spasm and cause 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.