What To Do
Your alarm goes off. You wake up and feel it instantly. Your neck is killing you. You’ve got a day to tackle — work to do and kids to take care of. What do you do about your sore or stiff neck when you slept on it wrong? Here are some ways to loosen things up:
Bring the heat — literally apply some heat. Most of the time a muscle spasm or muscle tension is to blame for a stiff neck in the morning. That calls for heat. That means a heating pad or HeatWrap like ThermaCare®. Even a long, hot shower will help. According to Paul Jeffords, M.D., a spine surgeon at Resurgens Spine Center in Atlanta, “Heat will increase blood flow and help loosen up the muscles.”
The wrong pillow can cause a stiff neck if the pillow isn’t supporting your neck in a neutral position.
Start with some gentle stretching. After you’ve warmed things up, here are some slow stretches to try. Repeat each one 10 times.
- Neck rolls: Tilt your head to the right and then roll it forward in a “U” shape to your left side. Then switch it up and go back again.
- Chair stretch: Sitting down, hold both sides of the chair. Pull lightly on one side while you tilt your head to the opposite side, then do the reverse side.
- Head rotation: Starting with your head directly over your neck, rotate right as far as you can, then rotate left as far as you can.
- Chin tuck: Gently tuck your chin down to your chest, then untuck.
You might think about getting a massage, but don’t make that appointment too fast. It really is dependent on the extent of your aches and pains. One study found that massages can help with neck pain from arthritis. “If you’re really in severe pain and having spasms, a massage can make it worse,” Jeffords says. “You want to make sure the severe, acute pain has been managed and is somewhat under control. If that’s the case, massage therapy may be somewhat helpful.”
The problem might actually be your bed. “The wrong pillow can cause a stiff neck if the pillow isn’t supporting your neck in a neutral position, meaning the slight curve of your neck is not changed or is bent at an odd angle,” says Michael Perry, M.D., cofounder and chief medical director of the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Florida. If you’re a side sleeper, your pillow should take up the space between your head and mattress, keeping your head straight. If you’re a back sleeper, you shouldn’t feel any sort of incline or decline when you lay your head down. You also might just need a new pillow — the National Sleep Foundation recommends replacing your pillow every year or two. And of course, if neck pain continues or gets worse after more than 7 days you should see a physician.
Modern technology might also play a role in neck strain. Avoid “text neck.” Even though the human head only weighs about 12 pounds, if you’re looking all the way forward and down (like when you text), your neck takes on about 60 pounds of force. “To avoid neck pain, be sure to hold your phone, tablet, or book up at eye level to keep your neck completely straight,” says Geno Mayes, DPT, a physical therapist and owner of Iron Physical Therapy in Caldwell, New Jersey. “If that’s not possible, try to only look down with your eyes.”
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