Crick in the Neck Causes and Treatment

Nearly everyone has experienced a “crick in the neck” at some point. Poorly aligned sleeping positions, too many hours at the computer—especially when your neck is held in a non-neutral position for several hours at a time—and a minor cervical spine injury are just a few of the things that may lead to this condition.

Close up of mixed race woman rubbing sore neck

JGI / Tom Grill / Getty Images

“Crick in the Neck” Is Not an Official Medical Diagnosis

Neck cricks are also referred to as neck kinks and neck creaks. Regardless of what you call them, a crick in the neck can be quite painful. But is it anything to worry about?

First things first: “Crick in the neck” is not an official medical diagnosis. Rather, it’s a phrase likely coined by some unknown person that took off to the point where it is now commonly used to describe temporary but often intense pain and/or muscle spasm at the top of your shoulder, in your neck, or at the bottom of your skull.

This means that your healthcare provider won’t give you a diagnosis of a crick in the neck, nor will you be able to bill your insurance for this problem. But should your practitioner translate your “crick” into medical terms that are recognized by the establishment, this could change.

Neck Kinks From an MD’s Perspective

When it comes to a creak, kink, or crick in the neck, one thing is certain: Medical professionals of varying stripes offer an array of perspectives as to its causes.

We asked two different physiatrists—medical doctors who specialize in physical rehabilitation—what a crick in the neck means to them. Both answered that about 75% of the neck cricks they see in their practices are due to muscle spasm. Other attributable causes they mentioned include:

A Comprehensive Explanation of Common Neck Pain

Late in the twentieth century, Robert Maigne, a French medical doctor, put forth a comprehensive explanation of common neck pain and one that likely includes neck cricks. Maigne’s contribution helps experts explain the multifaceted and often mysterious nature of a neck crick.

Maigne asserted that a condition known as painful intervertebral dysfunction often affects the most mobile area of the spinal joint. Because intervertebral dysfunction includes several structures rather than just one, it can account for several kinds of neck pain, and secondarily, headaches.

The area in and around the intervertebral joint consists of the disc; two vertebral bones, one above the disc and one below it; surrounding ligaments; and the nearby facet joints, which are located at the back of the spine and help keep you upright.

Intervertebral Dysfunction Is Painful But Not Serious

Quite often, intervertebral dysfunction is not serious, although it can cause intense pain. Paul Ingraham, who blogs at, calls intervertebral dysfunction, “minor intervertebral derangement or MID.” Ingraham defines MID as a “minor mechanical malfunction in your spine, causing pain directly through mild trauma.”

He lists things like pinched nerves, pinching of joint capsule tissue, popping (think knuckle cracking except that it occurs in your facet joints, which, again, are located at the back of your spinal column), and compression strain as common culprits.

A compression sprain may result from sudden movements you make for which your body is not prepared. According to Dr. Daniel Riddle, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, while consensus is lacking, many times a crick in the neck can be attributed to a problem in the facet joint.

But Dr. Santhosh Thomas, physiatrist and medical director at the Westlake Spine Center at the Cleveland Clinic, says, “The only way to really tell if the ‘crick in your neck’ is due to a facet joint problem is to perform a diagnostic injection into the area to confirm or rule out the facet joint as the origination of the pain.”

The Facet Joint May Be Causing a Muscle Spasm

Dr. Thomas says that in general, cricks in the necks of younger patients tend to be muscle spasms. Dr. Riddle agrees that muscle spasm is often present in cases of a crick in the neck, but that spasm may be a result of a problem in the facet joint.

Older patients, Dr. Thomas says, tend to describe the problem as a creak in the neck, and it is usually due to arthritis, which is another joint problem, and not muscle spasm. In older people, he adds, decreased range of motion associated with a neck crick, or creak, may also contribute to the pain.

Do You Need Treatment for Your Neck Kink?

If you wake up with a crick in the neck and you have not had a serious neck injury previously, there are a number of at-home therapies you might try. These include reduced activity and rest, ice and/or heat, massage, muscle relaxers, and pain medications.

It’s important to go easy on the area of your neck crick in the first few days at least. This is to help you avoid making it worse. However, complete rest or activity avoidance should be avoided in most cases, as this will contribute may likely contribute to ongoing pain and stiffness.

If the pain persists for longer than a week, or it disrupts your routine functioning, Dr. Thomas suggests getting it checked by a healthcare provider.

If pain is associated with any neurological findings such as tingling, numbness, or weakness (dropping objects) in the arms or hands, trouble walking (myelopathy). dizziness, or severe headache, medical care should be sought immediately.

Other signs that you may need medical attention for your neck include being over the age of 50, having sustained trauma to your neck, and/or bending your neck forward makes your symptoms worse.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Health Publishing. How to soothe a sore neck.

  2. Marcus, DA. Chronic pain: a primary care guide to practical management. Humana Press; 2009.

  3. Meloche JP, Bergeron Y, Bellavance A, Morand M, Huot J, Belzile G. Painful intervertebral dysfunction: Robert Maigne’s original contribution to headache of cervical origin. The Quebec Headache Study Group. Headache. 1993;33(6):328-334. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.1993.hed3306328.x

  4. Ingraham, P. The complete guide to neck pain & cricks.

Additional Reading
  • Daniel Riddle, PT, PhD, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. Personal interview. March 2008.

  • Santhosh Thomas, MD, physiatrist and medical director at Westlake Spine Center, Cleveland Clinic. Personal interview. March 2008.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.