How to treat neck pain triggered by moving your head

How to treat neck pain triggered by moving your head

Neck pains are a real pain in the neck. I guess mine started as a student and was caused by hours poring over medical textbooks. I've had it ever since. So when I read a forum user posting about their experience with neck pain, it rang all sorts of familiar bells.

Twist and shout

Cola211 posted that they felt a 'pop' in their neck in the middle of the night. The following morning they felt they had 'slept wrong' and experienced a sharp burning pain all along the right side of their neck.

Severe neck pain when turning head

Sometime last night I woke up, and when I tried to lift my head, I felt a pop in my neck. Now I can't stand up without getting that same pain. I can't turn my head to the left or right or look up or down at all without this intense pain.

— cola211, Severe neck pain when I try to turn my head?

Cola211 couldn't stand, turn their head to the left or right, or look up or down without getting an intense pain. They also got the pain when they moved their right arm, but were OK moving their left arm. The pain seemed to start at the bottom of the right side of the neck and extend to the base of the skull and the shoulder.

Neck pain can have many causes. Xtsn posted that Cola21's story sounded very much like torticollis, and I agree with them. The name comes from the Latin tortus which means twisted and collum which refers to the neck. The other name for it is wry neck.

Although it's unusual to feel a 'pop' in the neck, the symptoms otherwise are pretty much as Cola211 described them. The symptoms come on very quickly, often overnight, so you wake up with pain and stiffness down one side of your neck. Movement of the neck may be difficult or almost impossible. The pain may spread to the back of the neck or the shoulder.

Cola211 tried to massage their neck and it made the pain worse. They discovered another feature of torticollis - pressure on certain areas may aggravate the symptoms.

Getting it in the neck

In most cases, torticollis comes out of the blue and the cause isn't known. Kevin53196 mentioned that Cola211 might have slept awkwardly or pulled something. Cola211 certainly described waking up feeling that they had 'slept wrong'. This is often the story people with torticollis describe, although there's no particular evidence that any damage occurs while sleeping.

Occasionally, torticollis can be attributed to a particular cause, such as infection of the throat or upper airways (by virtue of swelling of the glands of the neck). It can also be caused by a neck injury, such as whiplash or as a side-effect of medicines such as phenothiazines. However, Cola211 doesn't mention anything about infection, injury or medication.

Features which suggest neck pain may be due to something other than torticollis include progressively worsening pain, weakness or clumsiness of the hand or arm, or persistent numbness. If you already have an illness such as AIDs, cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, neck pain may suggest the condition has started to involve the structures in the neck. Other worrying signs include feeling generally unwell, weight loss or fever. Tenderness in the neck bones can indicate a bone problem. Difficulty with walking or passing urine suggests pressure on the spinal cord.

Cola221 didn't report any of these worrying features, so it was worth trying some self-help treatments. But if any of these features developed, it would have been appropriate to seek urgent medical advice.

Pillow talk

The good news is that simple torticollis often improves in 24-48 hours. There's lots that Cola221 can do to relieve the symptoms in the meantime. Kevin53196 recommended wrapping a hot water bottle in a towel and applying it to the neck. He also advised paracetamol. Kevin53196 and Katie50361 also suggested ibuprofen which can be taken as well as the paracetamol. All of these solutions have medical backing.

Katie50361 and Levi5142 recommended ice, which I must say is a new one on me. Ice is OK if there is an area of inflammation or injury but I would have thought heat would be better at relieving muscle spasm. But hey, if it works, it works. My advice to patients about all treatments I am unfamiliar with is that provided they don't do any harm, it's worth giving them a try. Just make sure you don't apply ice directly on to the skin - the last thing you want is skin damage to add to your woes!

Girolamo1 mentioned pillows and I agree this is very important. The received wisdom is that people with neck pain should sleep with only one pillow. Any more than that and their head ends up at an abnormal angle. There are some weird and wonderful pillows designed for people with neck pain out there on the internet. Some you can fill with hot water. Some have extensions to support the sides of your neck. And some have weird shapes, like the Napping Pillow which makes you look like a squid (Google it). My own 'special pillow' is very old and falling to pieces and my wife has threatened to throw it away on several occasions. But I can't sleep without it. It's wonderfully soft and supports my neck in just the right places. It's been with me to Spain, Turkey and all points north of Tampa Bay and I'm never going to get rid of it.

Necks patient, please

There are many causes of neck pain, and it's worth being aware of these if the symptoms don't settle. Katie50361 had to have an MRI scan and was found to have several discs out of place. A1B2C3D4E5F6G7's neck pain was due to a fracture of the first and second cervical vertebrae, but that was after a really serious accident in the gym.

So even if the condition seems to be uncomplicated torticollis, if the symptoms haven't settled down after a week's worth of anti-inflammatory tablets and/or painkillers, you should consider seeing a doctor.

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