Crick in Neck

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Crick in Neck

Who hasn't woken up with a painful "crick in the neck," perhaps after a sleepless night? Sure it's painful, but is it anything to worry about?

"Crick in neck" is not an official medical diagnosis, so the term means different things to different people. For many, a neck crick is about waking up with pain and tension at the top of the shoulder, the neck and/or the bottom of the skull after a night of awkward pillowing or body positioning.

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

Related:  How to Get Relief from a Back Muscle Spasm

Crick in Neck - 2 Views on a Diagnosis

When it comes to neck kinks and cricks, one thing is certain: Health professionals from different fields, as well as lay people, do not agree on what, exactly, it is.

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.

What Should You Do for the Crick in Your Neck?

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 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. There are other signs you need medical attention for your neck or back, as well.

Andre Panagos, M.D., Spine Center, New York-Presbyterian Hospital. personal interview. March 2008.
Santhosh Thomas, M.D, Westlake Spine Center, Cleveland Clinic. personal interview. March 2008.
Daniel Riddle, PT, PhD, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. personal interview. March 2008.

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