What the heck is a “crick in the neck”? You wake up with limited neck movement, usually on one side. Sometimes it just feels painful and stiff, but other times it feels like bone-on-bone contact. Ouch.

Is it a pinched nerve? A slipped disc? While these things are possible—see your doctor if you have recurrent neck pain, or neck pain that includes other symptoms such as fever or shooting pain down the arm—neck cricks are usually due to an unassuming little muscle that runs from the side of your neck to the top of your shoulder blade. It’s called levator scapulae, and it’s responsible for raising your shoulder toward your ear.

Levator gets irritable when it’s expected to hold heavy purses and backpacks, when you tilt your head to one side a lot (ever use your shoulder to hold your phone?), and when your posture is slumped forward. When this muscle gets angry, it can act like a brick wall that no amount of stretching will fix.

What to do? Ice and heat can help. Start with heat (a heating pad or sock full of uncooked rice, heated in the microwave) for 20 minutes, then switch to an ice pack for 10 minutes. Repeat this a couple of times through your day. You may be tempted to try to stretch it out yourself, but remember that levator scapulae is irritated! Anything other than rest and gentle movement will further aggravate the local inflammation, increasing the minor crisis that your pain receptors are telling you about.

What else can you do? You guessed it: massage. While stretching and mashing on your neck will likely result in worse pain if you do it yourself, I know some tricks. I’ll work with your neck, gently and slowly, for about half of the session. By starting with nearby muscles and connective tissue, I’ll give levator a chance to calm down before I interact with it directly. This will be followed by some gentle trigger point work and movement, all within your pain tolerance. By the time I’m done, you should have about 50-75% of your range of motion restored (and sometimes all of it!).

Follow this up with some more of that ice and heat, and you should be feeling pretty good by the next day. If you get cricks frequently, come see me regularly and we may be able to prevent them all together! Wouldn’t that be nice? 🙂