What a Total Pain in the Neck!

March 9, 2015

   For the past week I've had a stiff neck. It's been awhile since I've had one and I forgot how annoying it is! Although, I have had to laugh a few times because of how people react when you have one. I came home and Jason couldn't immediately figure out something different about me. "What's different about you," he asked as I was turning my whole body to look at things. "You got your hair done?"

"No," I mumbled, "I have a stiff neck."

   There are numerous causes for a stiff neck. Some of them are quite serious but the overwhelming reason we get them is from sleeping in an awkward position. A corollary to that would be adopting an unhealthy position while reading or using a computer in bed or sitting on a chair.

  A couple of weeks ago I wrote about good posture... standing up. Perhaps it was prophetic for me because obviously I slept in a position that put a strain on my neck muscles. Posture counts while lying down, sitting up in bed, sitting at a desk and even while driving.

   The muscles that are most often strained are the levator scapula muscles. They are the ones that allow you to shrug your shoulders. Here are a number of sleeping reasons these muscles can become strained and essentially locked up.
  • Sleeping on your back with head raised too high.
  • Sleeping on your stomach with your head too far to the side.
  • Sleeping on your side with head too high or too low.

   Obviously, by the time we're adults we've figured out our sleeping styles and what's most comfortable in terms of position, bedding and pillows. When we're asleep we have little control over our body position. Once in a blue moon our bodies will end up in an unfortunate position that causes the levator scapula to clench or stretch for a long period of time. But there are plenty of other reasons this muscle group can become strained, most of them due to the raising of shoulders unnecessarily or allowing the head to go too far forward.

  • Using a keyboard that's positioned too high at a desk.
  • Hunching forward while driving.
  • Reclining too far back while driving, causing the head to be held too far forward.
  • Holding a cell phone and looking down at it for long periods of time.
  • Carrying a heavy pack or over-shoulder case that causes the head to be out of alignment.

   Just know that when your head is not positioned correctly over your spine, something's got to keep it in place and that means the levator scapula has to pull extra duty. When your head is on right it weighs 12 pounds. But when out of alignment it becomes as much as a 40 pound weight.

Stiff Neck Solutions

   The major healer of a stiff neck is time. That is, time... and stop doing whatever it is that's causing the stiff neck. Again, if you're pretty sure you got a stiff neck from sleeping in a weird position there's probably little to be adjusted in terms of your tried and true bedding and pillows. Stiff necks happen even under the best of conditions. But after a week if it's not getting better, it's probably time to check it out with a doctor.

   Posture adjustments like proper positioning for typing at a desk make a world of difference. The phenomenon of "text neck" has now become a thing. It makes me wonder whether looking at our phones for such long periods is healthy on many levels, but when it can ruin your physical health that's where I draw the line. I suggest to look at your phone for messages and reference but refrain from long chats and surfing. Driving posture is another easy one to fix. You should be slightly reclined and hands should be at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions on the wheel. And if you have to carry a big load on your back or on your shoulders constantly, switch to a roll around. That's a no brainer.

   One of the major treatments for stiff neck pain is heat. What it really comes down to is warming the muscles. It's not surprising that an open window letting in cold air while you're sleeping in a weird posture can contribute to already clenched up muscles clenching up even more. What a stiff neck needs is warmth to relax. That can be a hot bath or a warm wrap. Many gel packs are designed to be frozen or heated. Those are excellent.

   Rest is another important treatment. If possible, postpone appointments that will cause you to have to engage in a lot of body movement or bear weight with your shoulders or back. That gardening you had planned for the weekend, it might have to wait.

   I didn't go into the other serious causes of stiff neck such as infections, arthritis, or even fibromyalgia and meningitis. So I should reiterate that if you experience stiff neck for more than a week it should probably be examined by a doctor. 

   Here is a great exercise you can do a couple of times daily to relieve stiff neck pain

Stand with your feet parallel, about shoulder width apart. Keep you back straight and look straight ahead. Hang your arms loose by your sides and breathe in slowly through your nose. As you exhale (through your nose) start to slowly turn your head to the left as far as you comfortably can, or until you are looking over your left shoulder. Hold that  position for 5 seconds. 

Breathe in again as you gently turn your head back towards the front. When you are facing the front, start exhaling as you continue to turn your head to the right. Turn only as far as you comfortably can, or until you are looking over your right shoulder. Hold the position for a five seconds. Continue turning your head from side to side. Breathe in as you return to the front. Breathe out as you turn to each side. 

Try to stretch your neck a little further each time. Do 10 or 12 twists to each side to begin. 

Build up to 15 or 20 or simply do the exercise for several minutes each time.