Waking up with a stiff neck can be the first sign of a really bad day.
There are dozens of possible causes for a stiff neck – everything from a virus or the flu to arthritis or degenerative disease in the neck or spine.
But, most likely, what you really need to do is listen to your mother. Stiff necks are usually caused by bad posture.
«Most instances of what people call a ‘crick in the neck’ are caused by a person’s positioning while asleep,» says Dr. Brian Bruel, an assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center with dual appointments in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and anesthesiology and pain management. «You’re sleeping with your neck at a weird angle, and that causes muscle strain.»
Treating a crick
Assuming the pain is not caused by an injury, here are Dr. Bruel’s suggestions for treating the crick:
First, eliminate worst-case scenarios. If your stiff neck is accompanied by headache and a fever, there’s a chance you have meningitis. The pain tends to be quite severe with meningitis. Although this is a very unlikely possibility, call your doctor immediately if all three symptoms are present.
For a garden-variety stiff neck, try gentle, range-of- motion stretching exercises as your first line of defense.
«Try turning your head slowly toward the side with the ‘crick’ for about 10 to 15 seconds,» Dr. Bruel says. Turn the head up and down, side to side and ear to ear. Repeat as tolerated throughout the day.
If the problem persists, or you have spasms, apply ice. Do this for the first 48 to 72 hours, and if cold doesn’t work, try heat – hot packs, a heating pad, hot showers or compresses.
Pain relievers can help. Dr. Bruel recommends ibuprofen. But if that upsets your stomach, acetaminophen works well, too.
Getting to the root
Those measures will help the symptoms, but you must address the causes. Bending over a desk for hours, slumping in front of the television or curling up the wrong way with a book can contribute to a stiff neck. Consider these:
- Stand up straight: Dr. Bruel tells patients to stand straight by picturing a plumb line that aligns the ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles.
- Keep your head on: Your head weighs five to 10 pounds. It should sit atop your neck, forming a straight line. Holding it too far forward or back strains neck muscles.
- Sleep tight, sleep right: Your head should be positioned in a straight line with your neck. «Use pillow rolls to get the neck in that plumb-line position,» Dr. Bruel says. «Even if you sleep on your side, your neck should not be too far forward.»
- Ergonomically correct: Do you sit at a computer all day? Keep your head straight and your back supported.
«Leaning forward shortens the neck muscles, so when you lie down at night, they’re still tight,” Dr. Bruel says. “We’re not made to be all scrunched up all day or all night.»
By MARY JACOBS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News