Neck spasm: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

neck spasmNeck spasms are best described as unexpected contractions of the muscles in the neck. A neck spasm can be very painful and may be due to a variety of different nerve or cervical related issues.

They’re not a serious health issue; however, they can be a sign of an underlying disorder or health problem. In some cases, neck muscle spasms can lead to chronic pain. In most of the cases, muscle spasms in the neck make it hard for a sufferer to move their head to either side.


Pain brought on by neck spasms may last for a few days to several weeks, depending on spasm severity. You may need to modify certain movements and activities if they cause you further pain. Aggravating a neck spasm can prolong recovery and leave you in discomfort.

Neck Spasm Causes

What causes neck spasms? There are several triggers, including those listed here.

  • Poor posture – slouching or tilting the head
  • Shoulder weight – placing a lot of weight on the shoulder with a heavy bag
  • Heavy objects – carrying something heavy with one or both arms
  • Unnatural positioning – placing the neck in an odd position for an extended period. Cradling the phone or sleeping in an odd position can cause neck spasms.
  • Emotional stress – research shows stress can impact the neck and shoulders
  • Exercise – strain during physical activity
  • Overuse – over using neck muscles that are already stiff or injured can lead to spasms.
  • Headache – sometimes headache includes neck pain
  • Poor posture – tilting the head or slouching
  • Dehydration – not getting enough liquids can lead to spasms in the neck
  • Cervical spondylosis – this is degeneration in the spinal cord
  • Whiplash – when a person’s head is suddenly thrown backward and then the body stops moving and the head thrusts forward.
  • Computer work – long hours of working at a computer can cause neck pain, including stiffness and spasms.
  • Degenerative disc disease – the soft gel center of discs in the spine dry out, causing discs to narrow.
  • Herniated disc – when the outside layer of one of the cervical discs tears and the soft gel center bulges outward.
  • Cervical spinal canal stenosis – degenerative changes in the vertebrae that narrow the canal where the spinal cord lies.
  • Birth problems – some children are born with torticollis (stiff neck), which means their necks are in an odd position when they were in the womb.
  • Meningitis – a very serious infection that causes swelling in the brain as well as the spinal cord.
  • Temporomandibular joint disorders – commonly referred to as TMJ or TMD, this impacts the jaw and muscles surrounding it.
  • Trauma – accidents, such as falls.

It’s worth noting that if you’ve experienced neck spasms in the past and then expose the neck to cold and damp weather, there is a chance that the neck spasm will return.

Symptoms of Neck Spasm

The pain and other sensations that you might feel with a neck spasm can be startling and debilitating. While everyone has a different experience, depending on the cause of the neck spasm, there are some typical neck spasm symptoms.

A spasm itself is a sudden, powerful, involuntary contraction of the muscle. In many cases, the neck feels stiff and knotted along with the contraction.
Here are some other common neck spasm symptoms:

  • Muscle ache – the muscles in and around the affected area may be sore and have knots that are tender to touch.
  • Stiffness – neck muscles are tight, and it can be hard to move the neck
  • Nerve pain – the pain in the neck can radiate to the arms and even the legs. Some people describe a sensation of pins and needles in their arms, while others feel burning or numbness. Nerve pain is usually worse at night.
  • Headaches – this is a common problem with neck pain. A headache is usually felt at the back of the head but can also radiate to the sides or front of the head.
  • Reduced range of motion – limited in how far you can turn your head from side to side or how far forward and back you can move your head.
  • Joint locks – unable to move ahead due to joint locking in a certain position
  • Fluid build-up – stress leads to fluid build-up, which causes painful muscle knots.

Diagnosis of Neck Spasm

Whether you have neck pain or muscle spasms in the neck and shoulders, there is no reason to suffer in silence. In the majority of cases, the pain can be easily treated. Of course, getting a proper diagnosis is key.

If muscle spasm in the neck isn’t going away, a doctor may be able to pinpoint the cause by simply conducting a physical exam and looking at your medical history. Sometimes X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans are needed to find the exact cause. Scans can assess the spine and are used to determine if there are any disc or spinal cord problems. Compression of nerve roots can also be detected thanks to scanning.

Electromyography or nerve conduction tests are ordered in some cases where a person is suffering from a muscle spasm in the neck. These tests can evaluate electrical activity in the nerves and muscles and help determine if any nerve damage might be causing the neck pain.

While neck pain causes can be difficult to determine, most doctors should be able to zero in on whether the spasms are due to pressure on the nerve roots or spinal cord.

Once a diagnosis has been established, it should be followed by quick neck spasm treatment, otherwise, the sufferer may end up with chronic pain.

How to Get Rid of Neck Spasm

There are several different neck spasm treatment options. In some cases, the sufferer may have to try a few different methods when it comes to how to fix a neck spasm. It can be frustrating but giving up on treatment can lead to long-term problems.

Home Remedies for Neck Spasm

  • Rest – giving the neck adequate rest can be important when you experience spasms. Muscles bear the weight of the head while you are standing, so it is best to lie down and rest.
  • Massage – this increases blood flow and it can help manage the pain as well. Many massage therapists incorporate a heating pad or advise the patient to take hot baths to loosen up the muscles.
  • Ice – applying an ice pack to the neck can control pain because, after blood vessels contract, they widen, which can help increase blood flow to the affected area.

Other Treatment Methods

  • Medication – some pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, can be effective in controlling pain as well as reducing inflammation or swelling.
  • Muscles relaxants – usually for severe discomfort, these medications help relax the muscles. They need to be used under the supervision of a doctor.
  • Balms – there are medicated balms that can relieve neck muscle spasms. They often contain menthol, which can raise body temperature and soothe the muscles.
  • Good posture – being aware of body posture and correcting it whether you are sitting at a desk or just walking can help relieve neck pain.
  • Herbs – there are several herbs, including licorice, catnip, chamomile, kava root, horseradish, and valerian that can soothe stiff, achy neck muscles. A lot of these herbs have great anti-inflammatory properties. Adding a few drops of horseradish oil to a warm bath is known as an effective remedy for a stiff neck.
  • Hydration – drinking a lot of water can help, especially if the neck spasms are due to dehydration.
  • Painkillers – these should be a last resort and are usually for people who are suffering from excruciating pain. Narcotics like hydrocodone and propoxyphene can release muscle tension and pain. It’s important to keep in mind that these painkillers are highly addictive and can have side effects.

There are rare cases where neck pain requires surgery. Neck surgery can be very delicate and risky. Neck spasms normally don’t call for surgical intervention. Neck surgery is usually for individuals whose pain lasts a long time and is a result of certain disorders.

If you or someone you know is suffering from neck spasms, it is best to seek professional guidance when it comes to treating the pain. Taking matters into your own hands could cause you more pain and damage.

Exercises for Neck Muscle Spasm

Stretching the neck can help it stay limber and reduce the risk of spasms. Neck exercises include:

  • Neck rotation – while sitting tall, turn your neck over your left shoulder. To obtain a further stretch you can use your hand to apply pressure. Once you have completed this on the left side repeat on the right side. Each stretch should be held for at least 30 seconds and can be completed up to five times a day.
  • Basic neck stretches – using your right hand, place it on top of your head. Pull your neck down towards the right side of your chest. Repeat on the left side and perform these three times.
  • Scalene stretch – with both hands behind your back, clasp your right wrist with your left hand. Your left hand should now pull on your right wrist while also tilting your head to the left. You should feel a stretch on the left side of your neck as a result. Repeat three times on each side.
  • Neck curl and head lift – lay down in a position as if you were going to perform a sit up. With your hands behind your head and tuck your neck to your chest. Lift your head from the ground but leave your shoulders planted. Repeat five times.
  • Ear to shoulder – hands start off by your side. Begin by tilting your neck to your left shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds, return to center, and repeat on the right side. Repeat this exercise five times a day.
  • Chin tucks – place your fingertips on your chin and gently push your head back to create a double chin. Your head should be kept leveled and looking straight ahead.

Prevention of Neck Spasm

To prevent neck spasms, you should:

  • Take regular breaks from looking at a screen
  • Exercise regularly
  • Ensure your screen is at an appropriate height
  • Use a chair which promotes good posture
  • Conduct exercises that improve posture and stretch the neck
  • Use exercises at the first sign of neck pain
  • Use supportive pillows

When to See a Doctor

In some cases, a stiff neck and neck spasms can be caused by a serious health condition, like meningitis. Symptoms of meningitis include a sudden high fever, chills, stiff neck, headache, and a purple bruise. If you suspect you have meningitis, then you need to see a doctor right away.


If neck spasms and pain last longer than a week, then you should see a doctor as well. When someone suffers from neck spasms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they require medical attention. Some individuals can have one or two mild spasms and then feel perfectly fine.

However, when someone experiences severe spasms or ongoing neck pain, a professional medical assessment should be sought. Those who don’t address neck spasms could be putting themselves in jeopardy of experiencing long-term neck problems. Chronic pain can be very hard to treat, and it can have a negative impact on the patient’s lifestyle.

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Author Bio

Devon Andre has been involved in the health and dietary supplement industry for a number of years. Devon has written extensively for Bel Marra Health. He has a Bachelor of Forensic Science from the University of Windsor, and went on to complete a Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh. Devon is keenly aware of trends and new developments in the area of health and wellness. He embraces an active lifestyle combining diet, exercise and healthy choices. By working to inform readers of the options available to them, he hopes to improve their health and quality of life.


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