What Exactly Is a Crick in the Neck?

It's an unmistakable ache when you wake up with a crick in your neck. InesBazdar/Shutterstock

Sometimes you just wake up with a pain in your neck. At one time or another, you’ve heard it described — and may have even called it yourself — a crick in the neck. But why is it called that and what do you do about it?

A crick in the neck is not a medical diagnosis, but it’s an expression used by patients and doctors alike to describe any kind of neck pain, usually neck pain that makes it hard to turn your head a certain way. The word “cryk” was first used around the 15th century to describe muscle spasms or pain.

A crick is often a muscle spasm caused by holding your neck in an awkward way for an extended period of time. This often happens when you sleep on a pillow that puts your neck in an awkward position. It can also happen from sitting at a computer too long and holding your head too far forward or back.

“The muscle that is often involved when one has neck pain neck is the levator scapulae,” explains Eric Stobezki, doctor of physical therapy in New Jersey. “The levator scapulae connects four small vertebrae in your neck to your shoulder blade and is engaged every time you turn your head or raise your shoulders.”

A crick in the neck can also be caused by a joint problem, particularly the facet joints, which are two small joints in the vertebrae surrounding the neck. When the ligaments around these joints are strained, the muscles around them go into spasm, causing pain and discomfort. This can also happen when you rotate or bend the neck suddenly, such as when you’re in a car accident and you experience whiplash.

Treating a crick in the neck

Usually neck pain resolves itself in a few days. Meanwhile, you can try some over-the-counter pain relievers to help soothe the pain. You can also try taking a warm shower. The warm water coupled with the water pressure can create a soothing mini-massage, or you can try massaging the area yourself. It may help to put a warm compress on the area.

If the pain doesn’t go away, your best bet is to see a professional who can examine the area and make sure there isn’t something more serious happening. Sometimes the problem will require some physical therapy to limber up the neck muscles to ease the issue and prevent the problem from reoccurring. If you experience numbness or tingling or severe shoulder and back pain, it could be a sign of an underlying issue, such as a compressed nerve or a problem with one of your cervical discs.

If cricks are a common occurrence for you, there are some things you can do to keep them at bay.

“Try stretching your neck muscles every day by rotating your head and pulling it from side to side,” recommends Stobezki. You can also make sure that the pillow you use helps keep your head in line with your back, avoiding awkward positions while sleeping.

Stobezki also suggests: “Roll up a small pillow and place it in the air space between your neck and the pillow. That way, it will relax the neck muscles and help prevent misalignment of the neck.”

Finally, if you work at a computer all day, make sure your head is at eye level with the computer and take frequent breaks to rotate your head from side.

Follow these steps and the only pain in the neck you’ll experience will be your neighbor’s dogs barking at 2 a.m.!