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Have you ever fallen asleep in an awkward position?

neck problems

By: Cierra Washington, ATC

Raise your hand if you’ve ever fallen asleep in an awkward position and had the unexpected pleasure of waking up to a “crick in your neck”. For years, I’ve used the phrase “crick in my neck,” and yet I never really knew what it referred to other than general neck discomfort. When most people complain of a “crick” in their neck, they’re referring to either pain or stiffness, most likely in the form of a cramp or spasm. While awkward sleeping positions can lead to neck stiffness, tightness and spasms, there are many other causes including but are not limited to improper posture, playing particular sports, improper work station setup and many more.

Culprit number one: sleeping. Sleeping should be an activity that we all do in order to wake up fully refreshed and ready to take on the day. However, when we wake up with neck discomfort or pain, it can  immediately make us feel like we woke up on the ‘wrong side of the bed.’ When turning in for the night, it’s always important to think about which position provides you with the most comfort and spinal support. I you sleep on your side, you probably tend to need additional pillows to prop their head up so you maintain a neutral spine position rather than sleeping with your head lower than your spine. If you tend to sleep on your back, it’s recommended that you sleep with a contoured pillow to support the natural curvature of the cervical spine. Finally, let’s talk about stomach sleepers. Although stomach sleeping is considered the worst position, there are ways to do it so that you are decreasing your risk of back and neck pain. If you must sleep on your stomach, choose a flatter pillow that allows your spine to stay as close to neutral as possible. Keep in mind that rotating the head to one side for 6-8 hours while sleeping can result in overstretched muscles on one side and extremely tight muscles on the other, therefore causing pain and stiffness in the neck.

Next, let us discuss how improper posture can lead to a “crick” in your neck. When someone is constantly in a forward head position, or is rotating their head in one direction for an extended period of time, they are putting additional stress on the neck muscles. At Loudoun Sports Therapy Center, we see many patients who complain about neck stiffness, discomfort and pain. Most of them display poor upper back and neck posture. So what is the root cause of this poor posture leading to neck pain? When one area of the body is weak, its counterpart has to work twice as hard to stabilize or produce a function. Most patients that come in with neck pain have rounded shoulders, forward head posture and extremely tight pectoral muscles. They have muscle imbalances all over the upper body. The pectoral muscles are often weak and therefore are causing excessive pulling on the front of the chest and neck. This forces the muscles in the back of the neck to constantly be placed on a stretch so they’re being overstretched and overworked. Often times, this increased stretch on the neck muscles can cause the muscles to feel “strained” causing increased stress and tension in the neck muscles so they lock up and create those uncomfortable knots we all hate.

Athletics can also be a main cause of the “crick” in your neck, especially when looking at sports that involve quick and aggressive movements of the shoulders and neck, such as golf and tennis. In these two examples, the athlete’s shoulder and arms are the main functioning parts; however, keep in mind that the body is a moving connected chain. When golfing, you must keep your eye on the ball while swinging the club back, making connection with the ball and following through. Think about looking down while completing all phases of a golf swing. Your head and neck are staying locked in the direction of the ball while your body rotates from three different positions. During the process, the neck musculature is constantly working to stabilize with every swing and as the minutes, hours and swings go on, the tension steadily increases leading to stiffness and maybe even intermittent pain.

Another common reason neck problems are exacerbated is due to an improper work station setup. Now, this could be your desk at work, your television at home or even your phone in your hand. Each one of these activities should be performed with a proper setup in order to prevent increased neck pain and problems. Work stations should be set up to minimize all discomfort. When it comes to computer screens and arm placement on the desk there a few things you want to keep in mind

  • Place the monitor directly in front of you. If there are dual screens, position them in a semi-circle to ensure a consistent focal distance.
  • Place the monitor so that it’s level with your eyes.
  • Position the top usable line of the monitor at a height that ensures your neck is straight.
  • Look away from your computer every 20 minutes.

Now, let’s say you’re like most people who think, “it’s not that bad.” Ignoring that pain long enough or not handling it appropriately puts you at a greater risk for turning this small “crick” in your neck into tension headaches, facet joint dysfunction, and the inability to perform daily tasks safely. The tension headaches develop as the muscles continue to tighten and pull at the base of the skull, which is turn can become quite debilitating. Facet joint dysfunction can occur when the muscles have tightened so much that they have caused the vertebrae to misalign and become stuck under one another, limiting range of motion in many directions. Think about driving when you are unable to fully turn you head in one or both directions. Not only are you risking your life by shrinking your line of sight, but you’re also a threat other drivers.

So what can be done to minimize that “crick” in your neck? In addition to correcting your sleeping positions, getting the help of a physical therapist is a very effective way to handle and prevent your neck problems from coming back. The clinicians at Loudoun Sports Therapy Center will work to stretch out those tight neck muscles to prevent them from tightening up, causing knots and stiffness. They will also help you strengthen your postural muscles so you will perform activities of daily living with proper body mechanics. Manual, hands-on therapy is another key part of any patient’s plan of care here to work on tight, stressed tissues so they can be loosened and therefore increase your mobility. So don’t ignore or push through that neck pain or stiffness any longer. Physical therapy is a great choice to make when trying to relieve that “crick” in your neck. Not only will we give you stretches to loosen the area, perform manual therapies to release any trigger points or increasingly tight areas, but we’ll also teach you how to strength the surrounding muscles and how to prevent this from happening again.

Call Loudoun Sports Therapy Center at 703-450-4300 and schedule a one-on-one evaluation with our well-educated doctors of physical therapy, who will prescribe you a personalized plan of care that is tailored to your individual goals!


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