The birth of technology like the computer, car, and smartphone has led to us spending a lot of time extending our neck, either staring straight ahead or looking down without moving our neck much. If this is done infrequently, it doesn’t cause a lot of pain or stiffness, but it can add up if these actions become habitual. This coupled with bad posture and other factors has caused a lot of pain in the backs and necks of the average person. In fact, 70% of people in the U.S. at some point in their lives experience significant stiff neck and lower back pain.
What exactly is a stiff neck?
The neck is one of the most vulnerable parts of the body because it is so flexible and supports the head, which on average weighs between ten and 12 pounds. When the muscles in the neck become weak, it is much more difficult to turn your head smoothly and often you will pull a muscle or hit a nerve causing an intense burst of pain. The body responds by making your neck stiffen up more to protect from further pain, which leaves the neck feeling like it is locked in place.
A stiff neck is generally an acute condition that is caused by tiring the muscles around the neck joints and causing them to become overstretched. This usually occurs when you are locked in one awkward position for a long time such as when driving, using a computer, or sleeping. It is also caused by an injury occurring during other activities such as playing sports, projects around the house, and heavy lifting. Less frequently, a stiff neck can occur from traumas such as getting into a motor vehicle accident.
A stiff neck can be caused by quite a few things, but there are ways to treat a neck in pain. First, you should always consult your physician before you try to self-treat neck pain, especially if it is long-lasting or has additional symptoms like fever or numbness in the extremities. Rare conditions such as meningitis or cervical spinal stenosis can be the underlying cause in this case. These disorders need a medical professional to treat because, without them, it is possible they can cause serious damage as well as be potentially life-threatening.
Treating a stiff neck with neck stretches
There are some great options to help with a stiff neck even from the comfort of your own home. The best option for most people will be creating a regular stretching routine for your neck. Keeping to a daily routine of stretches will strengthen your neck muscles and reduce the likelihood of injuring them from overuse.
Try some of these easy stretches that you can do in the car or while sitting at your desk to start. For the maximum effect, try to do them in reps of ten.
- Rotate your head 90 degrees to the right so your chin is directly over your right shoulder and hold for five seconds. Then return to a neutral resting position. Repeat, but this time turn to the left.
- Lean your head back as far as it can go and point your chin towards the ceiling and hold for five seconds. Then return to a neutral resting position.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together slowly and hold for a five count. Slowly relax your shoulders as you exhale.
- Bring your ear all the way down to the top of your shoulder. Alternate between the left and right sides.
- Intertwine your fingers behind your head. Sit straight in your chair and begin to press your hands downward tucking your chin into your chest. To intensify this stretch, use the heels of your palms to pull your head away from your shoulders.
Cultivate good sleeping habits
Another great option is to make sure you have good sleeping space and habits. Sleep on a firm mattress and use a pillow that properly supports your head and neck. In some instances, it might be best to skip the pillow altogether, but make sure you are not overextending your neck.
Try to avoid sleeping on your stomach as it often puts your neck in an awkward position. Cold temperatures, especially at night while sleeping, can cause the neck to stiffen and cramp, so make sure you keep your environment at a temperature that’s right for you.
Try heat and cold therapy
If the neck stiffness is recent, try icing the muscles for the first few days to reduce swelling. After that, a heat therapy using a heating pad or hot showers can help increase the blood flow and loosen the muscles up. It is also a smart idea to take a few days off from strenuous activities, such as sports or heavy lifting until your neck has had adequate time to rest.
Avoid and reduce stress
Avoiding stress is easier said than done, but a major cause of muscle tension is stress. The problem with stress-induced muscle pain is that it can lead to chronic pain, which can cause irritability, fatigue, and depression, which can create a vicious cycle of pain and stress. Another issue with a stiff neck is the longer it goes untreated, the more likely it is to be reoccurring and the longer it will take to go away. Try some of the following techniques to relieve stress and relax those tense muscles.
- Practice relaxation techniques: This can come in many forms such as yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, or participating in a soothing hobby. Try to incorporate one of these into your life every day even if it is only for ten minutes.
- Talk it out: Creating a support system that you can talk to when stress is high can do wonders for your mental health. This can be as simple as talking to a friend or joining an online community. The important thing is that you talk about issues and challenges as it can reduce your stress overall.
- Get a massage: A massage is a great way to loosen up stiff muscles and get the blood pumping. It can help a lot with the soreness. Plus, it’s always good to pamper yourself every once and a while!
How often do you deal with a stiff neck and what do you do to relieve the pain and tension?