Today’s stress-filled busy lifestyle is a literal pain in the neck for many of us. Most computer-facing working professionals would complain of a stiff neck at some point during the week, just as frequently as would a professional athlete, a warehouse worker, or a stay-at-home parent. Lack of movement, muscle tension, injury, sleeping in the wrong position, and potentially something more serious like degenerative disc disease could all lead to stiff neck pain.
What Causes Stiff Neck Pain
The muscles in the neck work very hard to keep our head held up as we go about our day. These muscles are a part of sophisticated mechanism that also includes the vertebrae, ligaments, discs, and nerves. Certain lifestyle behaviours, injuries, or illness can throw this delicate balance off, resulting in misalignment, spasming, or impingement that leads to pain.
Being in a position for too long
When we hold the neck in one position for too long, one group of muscles will become overstretched, while the opposing group of muscles becomes overtightened. As nerves run through our muscles, this muscle imbalance will present as stiff neck pain, as well as temporary loss of mobility and flexibility, sometimes even headaches. Staring too long at our smartphones, hunching over the computer, or even sleeping on a bad pillow can cause stiff neck pain.
Playing sports or intensive work
Neck pain can also stem from practicing a particular sport, or a physically intensive occupation. Repetitive sports injury such as from swimming where the neck repeatedly turns from one side to the other may exhaust the muscles by moving too much within one plane of motion.
Work that involves looking down and up repetitively such as in warehouses checking inventory can also have the same effect of exhausting muscles to the point of stiffness. Even doing regular housework such as folding laundry, washing dishes, or gardening can cause a stiff neck.
Some athletic and work activities also carry the risk of acute impact injury, especially with high impact contact sports such as football, or with occupational hazards that include risk of falling. In these cases, the sudden trauma on the muscle would cause it to spasm when normal movement is attempted.
Stiff neck pain often also stems from stress. When we are stressed, our muscles tense up due to us being closer to fight or flight mode than we are in relaxed “safe” mode. We rarely are aware of this and realise it only when we feel the pain due to prolonged tensing of the muscles. Finally, if your neck pain persists despite trying out the tips we share below, be sure to talk to your doctor as the prolonged pain could be a sign of degenerative disc disease which requires specific medical intervention.
Quick and Lasting Fixes for Stiff Neck Pain
Fortunately, just as easily as we fall into the bad habits that cause stiff neck pain, there are tips for quick fixes that won’t magically make the pain disappear but will at least pave the way for relief. More importantly, in nearly all these tips is a lesson to heed on how to avoid developing stiff neck pain in the future. From the holistic standpoint of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), TCM Physician Vong U Chan refers to the three imbalances that most often result in stiff neck pain:
Coldness: Causes contraction in muscles, leading to soreness and knotting up of the muscle fibres
- Dampness: Causes swelling and soreness
- Deficiency: Leads to degenerative changes
1. Stop the Strain and Relax
One of the fastest ways to find relief is so simple and straightforward – stop whatever you’re doing that’s causing the pain. Many of the culprits are behaviours that have become habit, which means they are not always obvious to us. Put down your smartphone or look away from your computer and move. Take some deep breaths and relax.
2. Ice and Heat
For acute neck pain such as from a sudden blow or fall, Western medicine generally suggests calming the inflammation immediately with an ice pack. The coolness quiets down inflammation which involves increased immune response that leads to redness, swelling, and pain. Keep the pack for about 15 minutes at a time. For chronic and recurrent neck pain, use a warm compress for about 20 minutes at a time to help loosen the muscles and find a comforting relief. As usual, make sure to use adequate protection for your skin.
3. Massage and Acupressure
Gently massage your neck to get things moving again. You can also ask a friend or significant other to help massage your neck. A TCM type of self-massage called acupressure can also help.
4. Neck Stretches
A tight muscle responds well to proper stretching, which is the act of “reminding” and guiding the muscles of its original range of motion, as well reintroducing motion when there has been a lack of movement. Some neck stretches include the below – hold each stretch for about 30 seconds each:
- Extensor stretch: Bring chin to chest
- Flexor stretch: Look up to the ceiling
- Side bend: Bring ear to shoulder, repeat on other side
- Rotation: Slowly turn your head to one side as far as you can go
5. Topical or Oral Pain Relief
If there is persistent pain and inflammation, you can use a topical muscle rub which usually consists of a numbing ingredient and sometimes also a warming ingredient. You can also take painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen to help ease you from the pain so that you can relax and help your body start healing. Do not take more than the recommended dosage.
6. Acupuncture and Other TCM Modalities
Physician Vong highly recommends scheduling a consultation and session with a TCM practitioner even if it takes some time
Chronic stiff neck pain doesn’t have to be part of life. Next time you wake up with a stiff neck, try these fixes and get rid of your literal pain in the neck once and for all. More
- MyHEALTH – Ministry of Health Malaysia. 2019. Neck Pain. [Accessed 26 April 2022].
- Harvard Medical School. 2018. The 7 Faces of Neck Pain. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 April 2022].
- Mount Sinai. Neck Pain. [Accessed 26 April 2022].
- Cleveland Clinic. 2021. How to Get Rid of a Stiff Neck. [Accessed 26 April 2022].
- Cedars Sinai. Degenerative Disc Disease. [Accessed 26 April 2022].
- Cochrane Database for Systematic Reviews. 2016. Acupuncture for neck disorders. [Accessed 26 April 2022].
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