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Why Do You Get Cricks in Your Neck (and How to Prevent Them)?

Published December 7, 2017

No one wants to wake up to the pain and discomfort of having a "crick in the neck.” The first thing you notice is your inability to move your head causing you to feel robotic as you rely solely on your upper body to maneuver your head.

But what exactly is a crick in the neck anyway? A crick, which you may have gathered by now is less than a scientific name because it's not an actual medical diagnosis and may describe different conditions.

Beyond knocking your neck out of place during sleep, other causes may include:

  • Facet joint problems. The facet joint keeps the spine stable and if injured it will cause a crick in the neck. The only way to diagnose a facet joint problem is through a diagnostic injection in the neck.
  • Muscle spasms. A common cause of a crick and reported in more than half cricks overall is muscle spasms.
  • Cervical radiculopathy. This pain is caused by nerve irritation in the neck.
  • Arthritis. This degenerative condition is also a common cause of a crick in the neck.

"It's an age-old question that has probably plagued mankind since its existence," says Dr. Charles Kim, a musculoskeletal expert and assistant professor in the departments of rehabilitative medicine and anesthesiology at NYU School of Medicine who specializes in integrative pain management, physiatry, sports medicine and medical acupuncture.

According to Kim, a crick is what you'd expect: a strain or pull of the muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons that hold your head up. Kim recommends light stretches and gentle massage to get the muscles to loosen up.

Ways to Relieve a Crick

It may take some time for the muscles to relax and allow you to have full range-of-motion again, but you can try these methods to get you started:

  • Over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen Tylenol, Aleve, aspirin or ibuprofen.
  • Heating packs applied to the neck or shoulder.
  • Alternate between cold and hot therapies. If after the cold and heat therapy wear off, the crick comes back, it might be a muscle tear or impinged nerve. Consulting with your doctor is the next option.
  • A warm shower while incorporating gentle and range-of-motion neck exercises.

Ways to Prevent a Crick

Dr. Kim recommended these preventative tips to ensure that you don’t get a crick in your neck:

  • If you sit at a desk, make sure your workstation allows you to keep your spine in a neutral position with your computer screen at eye-level.
  • Avoid using too many pillows or overly-soft pillows that don't provide enough support when you sleep.
  • Exercise regularly. We tend to strain the muscles we strengthen the least, so consider some exercises that work your back and neck.
  • Don’t sleep on your stomach. Sleeping on your back is better for the neck.

When you get a crick in the neck, it's not the end of the world, but it sure feels lousy. Use the tips in this post to keep your neck happy when you sleep so that a pain in the neck doesn’t ruin a promising day.

Last change: January 25, 2019