You wake up with a crick in your neck and along your shoulder blade, making it painful to turn your head or even use the arm on the affected side. Now what? “I must have slept wrong” is the most common explanation.
Doing heavy work or playing sports such as golf or tennis can also cause a crick, sometimes simply called a stiff neck. So can desk work with your head in a strained position. Add worry and stress, which can make you tense up, and the likelihood of a crick increases.
Orthopedists don’t have a real definition of “crick,” a catch-all term for many neck ailments. Holding your head in an abnormal position for an extended time—for example, if you sleep on a pillow that’s bigger or smaller than the one you are used to—can strain your neck muscles, which go into spasm, causing stiffness.
A related theory: two small “facet” joints in each pair of neck vertebrae allow movement, and if you strain the ligaments around these joints, they become painful, throwing the muscles into protective spasm. This is sometimes known as facet syndrome, a term used for other types of neck pain, such as whiplash injury. Holding the neck in an awkward position can stretch ligaments, too, causing inflammation. So can rotating or bending the neck suddenly.
A crick will usually go away by itself in a few days without medical attention. But a crick can be temporarily disabling, and is certainly distressing.
How to treat a crick
Try an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol or generic), naproxen (Aleveor generic), aspirin, or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, or generic).
Apply heat to the neck or shoulder, or alternate heat and ice.
Try water therapy. Stand under a warm shower and do some gentle range-of-motion neck and shoulder exercises.
Do self-massage, or get a professional massage.
If your crick does not get better with home treatment, see a doctor, who may refer you to a physical therapist. If you have additional symptoms, such as tingling or weakness in your arms, be sure to seek medical attention.
How to keep cricks away
If you’re prone to cricks, gently stretch your neck muscles every day. Rotate your head; pull it from side to side.
Be sure your bed and pillow help keep your neck in proper alignment. Avoid awkward positions while sleeping.
If you work at a computer, hold your head comfortably—not too far forward or back.
Take frequent breaks and rotate your head gently.
Originally published February 2013. Updated January 2019.