Better Me

Here’s What to Do When You Get a Stiff Neck

You probably know the feeling. You wake up in an uncomfortable position, spend a long time driving or sit in front of your computer for too long, and you develop a stiff neck. It’s a common issue for a lot of people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 16% of adults in 2018 said they experienced neck pain that lasted for at least a day within the past three months.

But you don’t have to suffer with the discomfort. Tricia O’Driscoll, a Banner Health physical therapist, explained what causes a stiff neck and what you can do to feel better.

What causes a stiff neck?

Poor posture, improper breathing and lack of exercise can weaken your neck muscles over time. And when you don’t typically use your full range of motion, you won’t be able to move your neck as much, which can lead to a stiff neck. As you get older, degenerative changes also kick in. Trauma, such as whiplash, can also cause a stiff neck.

To help prevent a stiff neck, take frequent breaks and roll your shoulders, bring your ear to your shoulder or push your head back against your hands. Stand up and take a break at least every hour. When you’re working at a computer, driving or using your phone, pay attention to your posture. Sit up straight without tilting your head.

How can you treat a stiff neck at home?

Moving your neck and spine gently can help alleviate and prevent stiff necks. “The best posture is your next one. I recommend moving frequently throughout your day to help with stiffness,” O’Driscoll said. “People often do not move their spine to the end of their range of motion. Then they lose that range of motion, which creates areas of stiffness.”

O’Driscoll also recommends an exercise called a cervical sustained natural apophyseal glide (SNAG). Here’s how to try it:

  1. Place a towel or stretching strap behind your neck with the edges hanging down toward your chest.
  2. Cross your arms and grab the left side of the towel with your right hand and the right side of the towel with your left hand.
  3. Hold the right side of the towel to keep it stable. Reach the left side of the towel up across the bridge of your nose, keeping it close to your face. Use the towel to guide your head as you turn your head to the right. Apply gentle pressure at the end of your range of motion.
  4. Repeat on the other side.

In addition, topical creams or over-the-counter pain relievers like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), can help alleviate symptoms. Heat and massage therapy can also bring relief.

If you wake up regularly with a stiff neck, try sleeping without a pillow or with a neck pillow. You might also find that your neck feels better if you sleep on your back or side rather than your stomach.

It’s essential to maintain flexibility and range of motion in your neck. Otherwise, you could develop stiffness in your back and have trouble reaching overhead, since the muscles in your neck stretch to your shoulders and back.

When should you see a doctor for a stiff neck or neck pain?

O’Driscoll recommends talking to your doctor if you have a stiff neck or loss of range of motion that lasts for more than a month without any signs of improvement. If you have symptoms that radiate into your hands or arms, such as numbness or tingling, you should see a doctor right away. And seek prompt help if you had an accident that’s causing your neck pain.

The bottom line

It’s common to get a stiff neck, especially if you work at a computer or drive a lot. But you can alleviate the pain and take steps to improve your range of motion and keep a stiff neck at bay. To learn more about your back and neck pain, take our free back and neck pain assessment. To connect with a health care provider who can teach you how to take care of your neck, reach out to Banner Health.

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