Kinks and Cricks in Your Neck—Should You Be Worried?

A Common Source of Neck Pain

Man working on laptop rubbing his neck
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Nearly every one, at some point, has experienced a "crick in the neck." Poorly aligned sleeping positions, too many hours at the computer — especially when you hold your neck in a non-neutral position — or a minor cervical spine injury are some of the things that may lead to this condition. 

Crick in the Neck — A Term by Any Other Name...

Neck cricks are also referred to as neck kinks and neck creaks.

Regardless of what you call them, cricks can be quite painful. But are they anything to worry about?

Let's put first things first.

A "crick in neck" is not an official medical diagnosis. Rather, it's a popular phrase likely coined by some unknown person that took off to the point where it is now a common way to describe temporary but often intense pain and/or muscle spasm at the top of your shoulder, in your neck and/or at the bottom of your skull.

This  means that your doctor won't give you a diagnosis of neck crick or kink, nor will you be able to bill your insurance for this problem. But things may change should your doctor translate your "crick" into medical terms that are recognized by the establishment.

Neck Kinks from an MD's Perspective

When it comes to neck kinks and cricks, one thing is certain: Non-medical people, M.D.s, physical therapists all seem to have different takes on what they are.

We asked two different physiatrists—doctors who specialize in physical rehabilitation — what a crick in the neck means to them. Both answered that about 75% of the neck kinks they see in their practices are due to muscle spasm. Other attributable causes they mentioned were:

  • cervical radiculopathy, which is pain that radiates from the neck down into an arm.
  • intervertebral disc -related pain

 

According to a study in the 1993 journal Headaches, Robert Maigne, a French medical doctor put forth a comprehensive explanation of common neck pain, and one that likely includes neck cricks. 

Maigne's contribution helps experts explain the multi-faceted and often mysterious nature of a neck crick.

Maigne asserted that a condition known as painful intervertebral dysfunction often affects the most mobile area of the spinal joint. Because intervertebral dysfunction includes several structures rather than just one, it can account for many kinds of neck pain, and secondarily, headaches. The area consists of the disc plus the ligaments around it, and the nearby facet joints, which are located at the back of the spine and help keep you upright. Quite often intervertebral dysfunction is not serious, although it can cause intense pain. 

Paul Ingraham, who blogs at Painscience.com calls intervertebral dysfunction "minor intervertebral derangement, or MID. Ingraham defines MID as a "minor mechanical malfunction in your spine, causing pain directly through mild trauma." He lists things like pinched nerves, pinching of joint capsule tissue, popping (think knuckle cracking that occurs in your facet joints, which are located at the back of your spinal column) and compression strain as common culprits.

A compress sprain may result from sudden movements you make for which your body is not prepared.

Daniel Riddle, PT, PhD and Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that while consensus is lacking, many times it can be attributed to a problem in the facet joint.

But Dr. Santhos Thomas, physiatrist and medical director at the Westlake Spine Center at the Cleveland Clinic says "the only way to really tell if the 'crick in your neck' is due to a facet joint problem is to perform a diagnostic injection into the area to confirm or rule out the facet joint as the origination of the pain."

Dr. Thomas says that in general, "cricks in the necks" of younger patients tend to be muscle spasms.

Riddle agrees that muscle spasm is often present in cases of crick in the neck, but that spasm may be a result of a problem in the facet joint.

Older patients, Dr. Thomas says, tend to describe the problem as a creak in the neck, and it is usually due to arthritis (another joint problem), not muscle spasm. In older people, he adds, a decreased range of motion may also contribute to the pain.

Do You Need Treatment for Your Neck Kink?

If you wake up with a crick in the neck and you have not had a serious neck injury previously, there are a number of at home therapies you could try. These include reduced activity and rest, ice and/or heat, massage, and pain medications.

It's important to go easy on the area in the first few days at least, to avoid making it worse. If the pain persists for longer than a week, or it disrupts your functioning, Dr. Thomas suggests getting it checked by a doctor. Other signs you need medical attention for your neck. include being over the age of 50, having sustained trauma to your neck and/or bending your neck forward makes your symptoms worse.

Sources:

Ingraham, P. Save Yourself from Neck Pain! Pain Science.September 2017. https://www.painscience.com/tutorials/neck-pain.php

Meloche, J., et. al. Painful intervertebral dysfunction: Robert Maigne's original contribution to headach of cervical origin. The Quebec Headache Study Group. Headache. June 1993. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8349476

Riddle, D., PT, PhD, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. personal interview. March 2008.

Santhosh Thomas, M.D, Westlake Spine Center, Cleveland Clinic. personal interview. March 2008.

 

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