A crick in the neck can be temporary or chronic. It is often painless but may be connected to the chronic neck or shoulder pain.
In this article, we look at what causes a crick in the neck, as well as what treatment options are available.
Stiffness in the neck and a feeling that the neck needs to pop are common symptoms of a crick in the neck.
Many people who develop a crick in their neck also have neck pain. This is because a crick in the neck is often due to minor muscle injuries.
However, not all people with neck stiffness or a crick also have pain.
The most common sensations associated with a crick in the neck include:
- stiffness in the neck
- a popping sensation or sound when a person moves their neck in a specific direction
- a feeling that the neck needs to pop
- stiffness in muscles near the neck, such as the shoulders or upper chest
- difficulty moving the neck in a particular direction
- a feeling that rotating the neck will be very painful
Common causes of a crick in the neck include:
- muscle injury or tension due to sitting or sleeping in an awkward position
- sitting at a computer all day
- poor posture
- strains, sprains, and other minor injuries
- poor muscle flexibility
- muscle weakness
- muscle spasms
- whiplash, a typical car accident-related injury
In many cases, a sedentary lifestyle, long periods spent sitting at a computer, or inadequate exercise make minor injuries worse or may prevent a crick in the neck from healing.
In about 15 percent of cases, neck stiffness and pain is caused by an underlying medical problem. These causes include:
- A herniated disc, which happens when one of the discs in the spine bulges or swells.
- A fracture in the upper spine, which may be caused by an accident or fall.
- Spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal, often due to osteoarthritis.
- Osteoarthritis, which is a type of arthritis.
- Spondylolisthesis, a condition that causes a bone of the spine to move over another bone.
In very rare cases, a life-threatening neurological or blood vessel issue can cause a crick in the neck. These problems cause additional symptoms and require emergency medical attention:
Meningitis is an infection in the meninges, the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms often come on suddenly and include:
- a sudden high fever
- changes in consciousness
- a severe headache
- pain or numbness in the limbs
- sensitivity to light
Stroke or heart attack
If stiffness in the neck is accompanied by other symptoms, such as numbness in the limbs, it may be a sign of a heart attack or stroke.
Heart attacks and strokes sometimes cause sudden neck stiffness and can be life-threatening if not treated as soon as possible. A person should seek emergency medical attention if neck stiffness occurs with:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
- shooting sensations down one arm
- numbness in the limbs
- a sudden, intense headache
- intense jaw pain
- weakness or dizziness
Cervical artery dissection
Cervical artery dissection is rare and happens when the arteries in the neck are torn, sometimes because the neck has been hyper-extended.
People with cervical artery dissection may feel a sharp pain at the base of the skull in addition to neck stiffness. Many people may also experience a sudden, intense headache.
Brain or spinal cord injury
A fall or blow to the head or back can injure the brain, the spinal cord, or both. These injuries are medical emergencies that can cause permanent brain damage or paralysis.
See a doctor immediately for:
- neck stiffness after a fall or blow to the head
- changes in perception or difficulty thinking
Treatment for a crick in the neck depends on the underlying cause. If it is due to muscle stiffness or minor injuries, home treatment will often be enough to relieve symptoms.
Heat and ice
Heat and ice can reduce inflammation and increase blood flow to the neck, helping the injury heal faster.
A person should try alternating heat and ice packs in 20-minute intervals. If one treatment helps more than the other, then continue using the one that works.
Exercise and stretching
Stretching and physical therapy may help, although guidance from a medical professional is recommended.
Exercise and stretching are highly effective because they fight the most common causes of neck stiffness: muscle weakness, poor posture, low flexibility, and muscle spasms.
A 2015 study found that a 4-week neck and shoulder-stretching routine could fight chronic muscle pain and tension in office workers. A 2016 analysis confirmed that exercise was an effective treatment for whiplash.
To relieve a crick in the neck, a person can try:
- gentle yoga or Pilates
- shrugging and rolling the shoulders back and forth and up and down
- gently moving the head to each side, then up and down toward the chest
A person should never force a stretch or overextend the neck since this can make the pain worse.
It can also be helpful to take breaks every hour if work requires long periods of time at a desk.
A brisk walk during a lunch break may help fight generalized stiffness, including in the neck.
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can help reduce neck stiffness that causes pain.
Medications that fight inflammation can also help with stiffness due to inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.
People who frequently have a crick in the neck may benefit from changing the way they sleep or sit.
Investing in a firm pillow, an ergonomic chair, or a neck cushion for long flights or drives can help prevent stiffness in the future.
People with chronic neck stiffness or pain sometimes find help from acupuncture or massage therapy. If home treatment fails, talk to a doctor before trying alternative medicine.
If the crick in the neck is caused by an underlying condition, such as osteoarthritis, it is essential to work with a doctor to find the best treatment.
A doctor may recommend a wide range of treatments, including physical therapy, medication, exercise, steroid injections, and surgery.
If a person has meningitis, they may require antibiotics and a stay in the hospital. Likewise, someone who has a heart attack, stroke, or a broken artery will also require hospitalization. They will likely also need a variety of additional treatments, which may include medication, removing a blood clot, surgery, or blood thinners.
Most people recover from a crick in the neck within a few hours to a day or two. When the stiffness is due to an injury or associated with muscle pain, recovery can take longer.
Because a crick in the neck is often due to lifestyle factors, it may come back. It is essential, therefore, to make some lifestyle changes to prevent muscle stiffness and injuries occurring in the future.
While most people can treat a crick in the neck at home, people should see a doctor if a crick in the neck occurs with intense pain, other symptoms, or gets worse over several days.
The recovery time associated with more severe conditions will vary depending on the underlying problem and other factors, such as a person's overall health. For example, osteoarthritis is manageable but may require continuous treatment over many years.
A crick in the neck can be unnerving, especially if it has never happened before. For most people, however, it is not linked to a serious medical condition.
With a few stretches and a little patience, a crick in the neck should disappear. If it does not go away with home remedies, a person should speak to a doctor about treatment options.