Have a Crick in Your Neck? Why It Happens and How to Fix It

That sudden shooting neck pain that stops you in your tracks? It's probably a crick in your neck, but it's important to pay attention to the symptoms, know the potential causes, and understand how to treat it.

A pain in the neck

Almost everyone has experienced a sharp, shooting, tingling pain in their neck at some point or another. Maybe you simply moved your head, and—bam!—you had an almost debilitating feeling stopping you in your tracks.

“Neck cricks, strains, and sprains account for 85 percent of neck pain,” says Mona Zall, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with a specialization in the interventional spine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

When you experience a crick, you likely grab your neck, hesitate to change position, and take a few slow, deep breaths to assess the situation. But almost as soon as the pain starts, it wanes, and you’re able to continue going about your business.

The thing is, even though the pain from a crick in the neck usually subsides quickly, a lack of pain doesn’t mean it’s back to normal or that there’s not something going on that should be assessed or addressed.

In fact, even if you’re able to move on from your crick without a second thought, to prevent more problems in the future, it may be time to look at some of your daily habits that could contribute to neck pain.

Here’s what you need to know about a crick in the neck, including the symptoms and causes. Experts also share the best exercises and prevention methods.

What is a crick in the neck?

Of course, a “crick” isn’t a medical term or an official diagnosis. Rather, it’s a word that refers to a specific sensation or set of symptoms.

So there could be a variety of potential causes, especially if different people experience the sensation of a crick in somewhat different ways.

That said, there are a few common culprits when it comes to explaining the phenomenon.

“A crick in the neck refers to a spasm or tightness in the muscles on top of the shoulders or between the shoulder blades, known as the trapezius muscle,” says Kim MacDonald, a physical therapist and owner of Crimson Therapies in Palm Beach County, Florida.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Pain with rotation or tilting of the head
  • Restriction of movement
  • Mild or dull headache
  • General ache or fatigue above the shoulders or sides of the neck

Stretching always results in me pulling a muscleJay Yuno/Getty Images

What causes a crick in the neck?

Luckily, in most cases, the causes and treatments of a neck crick are fairly straightforward. In fact, a little bit of awareness and home-based treatment may correct the issue.

That said, it’s important to be aware of other, more serious causes, especially if you experience a head, neck, or back injury before starting to experience neck crick symptoms.

A crick in the neck might be a sign of a more serious injury, including strains or sprains.

(Look for these signs of a pulled neck muscle.)

Texting and bad posture

If you have an unhealthy attachment to your phone, you might be more prone to neck cricks.

“Though text neck is not a clinical diagnosis, the theory behind it is intriguing and concerning,” says Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.

He explains that the downward tilt of the neck that’s required to look at your cell phone places undue strain on the cervical spine.

“Research suggests that as the downward angle of the head increases, so does the amount of weight the neck is forced to carry. The head placed at a 60-degree angle forces the neck to hold the equivalent of 60 pounds,” he says

The neck is really only designed to carry the weight of the average skull, which is about 12 pounds.

“In effect,” he says, “these torqued angles we’re placing our necks at are putting up to five times the amount of pressure on them than they were designed to hold.”

A poor sleeping position and bad posture also exacerbate the resulting poor alignment from a forward-inclined neck.

Over time, muscular imbalances and changes to structure can cause cricks in the neck, back pain, headaches, and changes in mobility.

Bad pillows

If you’ve put off the expense of investing in a new pillow and your neck is cramped, tight, and occasionally delivering the unpleasant symptoms of a crick, it may be time to make choose a pillow that’s good for neck pain.

Without proper neck support and alignment, muscle tightness and pain can result.

“Look for a pillow that keeps your neck parallel to the mattress and that adapts to your sleep position,” says Dr. Anand. “Cervical contour pillows are extremely effective for most because your neck rests on a less elevated side when lying on your back or on a more elevated side when sleeping on your side. Foam contour pillows are also a great option.”

Dr. Anand adds that the type of mattress you have makes a difference in the kind of pillow you should purchase.

“If you have a firmer mattress, you’ll need a thicker pillow because there’s less cushion for your shoulder to sink into,” he explains. “Now, if your mattress is memory foam, you’ll need the opposite—a thinner pillow to compensate for your shoulder sinking into the bed.”

Wear, tear, and degeneration

It’s an unfortunate truth that with age, activity, and use, the bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments can all start to feel the effects of daily wear and tear. While this is often in older adults, that’s not always the case.

Suppose you’re experiencing ongoing pain, stiffness, and neck cricks despite making adjustments to your posture, sleep position, and habits. In that case, it’s worth heading to a doctor to see if you might have neck arthritis, cartilage breakdown, or problems related to the discs in your neck and spine.

“Degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine is the most common cause of neck pain,” says Dr. Anand. “This disease can occur over time, when wear and tear continues and causes more significant and sometimes permanent damage.”

This isn’t an issue you want to ignore. Aside from pain and stiffness, it’s often accompanied by tingling, numbness, or general weakness in the shoulders and arms. In fact, the tingling you might associate with a “normal” crick, could actually be because of this degeneration.

When to see a doctor

A crick in the neck can result from acute, repetitive, or chronic injuries, as well as arthritis. That’s why, if you’re experiencing neck pain regularly or if a crick in the neck won’t go away, it’s important to seek a diagnosis of the cause.

In addition to making sure you’re treating the symptoms correctly, a doctor can ensure that there’s not a more serious neurological problem playing a role in your symptoms.

How to get rid of a crick in your neck

Generally speaking, if you get the very occasional neck crick, especially right after you wake up or after keeping your head in a static position for a while, it’s probably nothing concerning.

How long does the pain last? In all likelihood, you can simply reset your posture, do a few neck stretches, and move on without more problems.

But if your pain or discomfort continues, you may need to try some common home treatments for relief.

Heat and ice

Dr. MacDonald points to ice and heat as the first lines of defense. Stick with ice for the first 48 hours, applying it to the painful area for 15 minutes two or three times a day to help reduce inflammation.

After the first two days, switch to moist heat to encourage circulation, following the same application schedule.

(Check out these cooling and heated neck wraps to start finding relief.)

Stretching

Gentle stretching—with a focus on “gentle”—is important.

MacDonald suggests looking over each shoulder. Just be sure to only move as far as your range of motion will comfortably allow. Then bring each ear to the same-side shoulder.

Move slowly and conscientiously without pushing yourself to the point of pain.

(Try these stretches for upper back pain.)

Medication

You can also use over-the-counter pain medications and creams.

That said, you don’t want to rely on these interventions for weeks at a time. Rather, try them for three to five days.

If the pain persists beyond five days, it’s likely time to get a doctor or therapist involved.

(Try these other home remedies for neck pain.)

Spinal surgery

Here’s the good news: most people with neck cricks won’t ever need surgery. In fact, most people with neck pain in general won’t ever require surgery.

But Dr. Anand points out that there are circumstances where chronic and painful conditions develop that require surgical intervention.

“When one part of the spine fails, it puts the other parts of the spine at greater risk for injury and illness,” he says. “Correcting these conditions as completely as possible is important for preserving the overall health of the rest of the spine.”

If you’re in a lot of pain, a “quick” surgery fix might be tempting. Still, you should remember that surgery, too, requires post-surgery physical therapy that’s often uncomfortable, time consuming, and even painful.

It’s best first to address the symptoms in non-surgical manners, leaving surgical interventions as the last (although sometimes best) resort.

How to prevent a crick in your neck

Prevention is always the ideal solution. To avoid a crick in your neck, focus on good posture.

Target poor posture and strength with neck exercises. Interventional physical therapy is one way to prevent neck issues from spiraling out of control.

Next, check out the habits that damage your spine, neck, and back.

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Sources
  • Kim MacDonald, DPT, a physical therapist and owner of Crimson Therapies in Palm Beach County, Florida
  • Mona Zall, DO, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with a specialization in the interventional spine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles
  • Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles

Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C
I'm a fitness expert with a master's degree in exercise science and certifications in exercise physiology, yoga, sports nutrition, sports conditioning, behavioral change, and youth fitness. I've written professionally in the field for more than 10 years, with bylines in Men's Journal, VerywellFit, Runner's World, Health, LiveStrong, Onnit, Bodybuilding.com, and Thrillist. I'm also the author of the internationally-published book, Partner Workouts, published by DK Books. In addition to writing about health and fitness, I worked as a professor of exercise science for three years.