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
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"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 popular phrase likely coined by some unknown person that took off to the point where it is now a common way to describe temporary but often intense pain and/or muscle spasm at the top of your shoulder, in your neck and/or at the bottom of your skull.

This means that your doctor 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 doctor 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 cricks in the neck, one thing is certain: Medical people of varying stripes offer an array of perspectives as to causes it.

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

According to a study in the 1993 journal Headaches, 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 multi-faceted 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. Daniel Riddle, PT, Ph.D., and Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that while consensus is lacking, many times crick in neck can be attributed to a problem in the facet joint.

But Dr. Santhos 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. 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, and pain medications.

A 2018 study published in the journal World Neurosurgery gave an account of a 30-year-old patient who had a massage for his neck crick. Unfortunately for the patient, the massage likely caused a stroke when the vertebral artery was dissected during the procedure.

The study authors say this outcome of massage is rare. Just the same, knowing the risks may help you determine the safest course of action for getting rid of a painful crick in the neck.

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

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.

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  1. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. How to soothe a sore neck. Updated September 25, 2019.

  2. Marcus, DA. Chronic pain: a primary care guide to practical management. New York, NY: 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):328-34. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.1993.hed3306328.x

  4. Ingraham, P. Save yourself from neck pain! a complete guide to chronic neck pain and the disturbing sensation of a “crick”. Updated December 13, 2019.

  5. Dutta G, Jagetia A, Srivastava AK, Singh D, Singh H, Saran RK. "Crick" in neck followed by massage led to stroke: uncommon case of vertebral artery dissection. World Neurosurg. 2018;115:41-43. doi:10.1016/j.wneu.2018.04.008

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