As you reach over to turn off your alarm clock, you feel it immediately: sharp pain shooting down your neck. It’s a common ailment that most of us experience, but the discomfort can make it difficult to get through the day.
What causes neck pain?
More often than not, the pain and stiffness you feel in your neck when you wake up is the result of sleeping in one position for too long without moving (the human body is meant to move around, even in sleep). Sometimes, the pain is so excruciating that it can feel as if you’ve injured yourself while sleeping. Fortunately, this is often not the case. The culprit could be your pillow: if it’s too thick or thin, your neck can’t rest in a neutral position, putting extra stress on muscles and joints. In rarer cases, neck soreness can be a sign of an injury that occurred days before and has nothing to do with how you slept.
What can be done to ease the pain?
Whatever the cause, there’s no reason to suffer. Here are a few things you can do to ease the pain in your neck and restore your range of motion.
Try to move your neck as much as you can — but not to the point of causing pain. Look up and down, turn right and left, and tilt right and left, to help reduce stiffness.
Hot and cold
Use heat or ice on the area. Applying ice will help reduce inflammation (ie. swelling, bruising) while heat will help the muscles relax and promote blood flow to the area. If there doesn’t appear to be an injury and there isn’t any swelling or excessive warmth to the area, heat is best. Otherwise, apply an ice pack.
Use a muscle relaxant or anti-inflammatory medication
These can provide some relief, but only use a muscle relaxant or anti-inflammatory medication if you’ve used them in the past without any issues, and do so with your physician’s knowledge.
Massage the area
It can help to rub the tight muscles gently. You can also push into the tight spots and hold the pressure for 60-90 seconds, triggering the muscles to release.
See a physiotherapist
Neck pain and stiffness generally subsides on its own, but if it doesn’t go away in a few days — or gets worse — it’s time to get physiotherapy. Don’t wait it out if you have any other symptoms — like headaches, pins-and-needles or numbness and tingling down your arms — as you may have a neck injury that would benefit from treatment sooner than later.
How can neck pain be prevented?
Research shows that people with sedentary jobs are at a higher risk of neck pain than others, probably because of poor posture while sitting at their desks. An ergonomic work station and regular exercise (with a focus on strengthening your core muscles) can help remedy this.
It’s also important to be attentive to how you sleep at night. Your mattress and pillow should maintain the natural curves of your spine and neck and allow your body to move naturally throughout the night. The optimal sleeping position is on your side or back, but not on your stomach (as your neck will need to rotate too far to the left or right for prolonged periods of time, putting strain on the muscles, ligaments and joints).