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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Eki Wari and Physician Vong U Chan on July 31, 2022

Quick Tips To Help You Loosen Up A Stiff Neck

Sleeping wrong, repetitive motions, and stress can all lead to a stiff neck. Discover how to get rid of it and when you should seek medical help here.

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A stiff neck may occur for several reasons. It may develop if you sleep incorrectly, injure yourself while exercising, or even from looking at your phone too much.

However, in some cases, a stiff neck may be a sign of something more serious, such as degenerative disc disease.

Read on to learn some quick tips for loosening up a stiff neck at home, and when you should talk to your doctor about treatment.

What Causes A Stiff Neck?

The muscles in the neck work very hard to keep our heads held up as we go about our day. These muscles are a part of a sophisticated mechanism that includes the vertebrae, ligaments, discs, and nerves.

Certain lifestyle behaviors, injuries, or illnesses can throw this delicate balance off, resulting in misalignment, spasming, or impingement that leads to pain. 

Being in one position for too long 

Staring down at your phone is a common cause of a stiff neck. Make sure to practice good posture if you are stuck in one 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, and 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 physical work

Neck pain can stem from injury due to a repetitive sport.

For example, swimming causes the neck to repeatedly turn from one side to the other. This can exhaust the muscles by moving too much within one plane of motion.

A physically intensive occupation may also cause neck pain. Work that involves looking down and up repetitively can exhaust 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 the risk of falling.

In these cases, the sudden trauma on the muscle would cause the neck to spasm when normal movement is attempted. 

Stress

Stiff neck pain often 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 realize it only when we feel the pain due to prolonged tensing of the muscles.

When To See A Doctor

If your neck pain persists despite trying out the tips we share below, be sure to talk to your doctor. The prolonged pain could be a sign of degenerative disc disease, which requires specific medical intervention. 

Stiff Neck Treatment Options

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), 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 fibers 
  • Dampness: Causes swelling and soreness 
  • Deficiency: Leads to degenerative changes

Stop what you’re doing 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 behaviors that have become habits, 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. 

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 that leads to redness, swelling, and pain. Keep the pack on 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.

Make sure to use adequate protection for your skin, such as a washcloth or layer of clothing between you and the treatment. 

Massage and acupuncture

Gently massage your neck with herbal pain-relieving massage oil to increase circulation and reduce stiffness.

You can also ask a friend or significant other to help massage your neck. A TCM type of self-massage called acupressure on the Luo Zhen (EX-EU8) acupoint can help.

The Luo Zhen (EX-UE8) acupoint is located in the hollow on the back of the hand between the second and third knuckles.

“Firstly, move your head and neck gently to identify the side which is more stiff and painful. Next, locate the acupoint Luo Zhen (EX-UE8) on the opposite hand (i.e., if the right side of your neck hurts more, locate and apply the acupressure on your left hand).

Apply gentle pressure, stimulating the point by making small circles, pressing deeper into the tenderness, for a few minutes. At the same time while you hold the pressure, gently rotate, and stretch your neck. Do this for a few minutes and you should notice an increase in the range of motion and decrease in pain,” Physician Vong advises.

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 as reintroducing motion when there has been a lack of movement.

Some neck stretches are included below. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds: 

  • 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

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 the pain so that you can relax and help your body start healing. Do not take more than the recommended dosage. 

You may explore using herbs to help with pain relief. A good herb is Panax notoginseng, which is also known as Tian Qi.

Acupuncture and TCM remedies 

Physician Vong highly recommends scheduling a consultation and session with a TCM practitioner even if it takes some time. 

“TCM can treat acute stiff neck pains effectively. Most of my patients can feel immediate relief after one session of acupuncture. The treatment options available are acupuncture, scraping massage also known as gua sha, cupping, and tuina massage. These treatments (alone or in combination) offer immediate relief,” stated Physician Vong.

Herbal medication also helps. However, they may work slightly slower as it takes a few hours for the medicine to take effect compared to a 30-minute acupuncture and gua sha session.

Make sure to work with a TCM practitioner, as certain acupoints are not suitable for people with certain conditions, such as pregnant women.

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 importantly, consider changing your habits to prevent future recurrence. 

References

  1. Harvard Medical School. 2018. The 7 Faces of Neck Pain. 
  2. Mount Sinai. Neck Pain. 
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. How to Get Rid of a Stiff Neck.  
  4. Cedars Sinai. Degenerative Disc Disease.  
  5. Cochrane Database for Systematic Reviews. 2016. Acupuncture for neck disorders. 

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