We’ve all been there. You spend a long day on the couch watching television, you slouch forward, lay your head on the pillow, and after a good hour or two of blissful laziness, you drift into a much-needed midday nap. You wake up soon after feeling refreshed, revitalized, and ready to take on the day. You spring up off the couch, turn to look at the clock, and lo and behold, you feel a sharp pain in your neck!
You struggle to turn your head comfortably for the remainder of the day, taking over-the-counter chemical pain relievers like acetaminophen to try and numb the discomfort, but the pills do little to help. You resign to deal with it for the rest of the day, hoping that the pain will subside by tomorrow. You wake up the next day and feel some slight relief, but the pain is still there. You wonder to yourself, “What the heck is wrong with my neck?”
Well, the answer is actually quite simple. When you sit with poor posture in your neck for long periods of time, you force your body to overuse your neck muscles. This overuse leads to pain and stiffness that in some cases, can limit your ability to turn your head at all.
A variety of factors can lead to a stiff neck including:
- Sleeping or napping in an awkward position
- Sitting or slouching for long periods of time, such as on an airplane or at a desk
- Repetitive turning of the head
- Excessive stress
- Frequent anxiety
Neck stiffness can last anywhere from a day to a week, to even longer depending on how you manage your symptoms. Below we explore a few important facts about neck stiffness, how to prevent it, and most importantly, how to relieve the pain it induces.
1. Posture is everything
The number one way to prevent neck stiffness is to be mindful of your posture at all times. The handy guide below gives you all the information you need to perfect your posture:
- Keep your ears in line with your shoulders
- Pull your shoulders backward
- Focus your weight on the balls of your feet, not your heels
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart
- Maintain a slight bend in your knees
- Let your arms hang naturally
- Keep your feet flat on the floor, or use a footrest if your feet don’t reach
- Keep a small gap between the back of your knees and the front of the seat
- Make sure your knees are at or below hip level
- Ensure that the backrest of your chair provides adequate lumbar support
- Relax your shoulders
- Try to change sitting positions or stand up every 20 minutes or so to prevent the buildup of tension
While lying down:
- Make sure you have a good, comfortable mattress to support your posture. The firmer, the better.
- If you sleep on your side, try putting a pillow between your legs to align your hips with your spine.
- If you sleep on your stomach, try putting a pillow under it to relieve tension on your head and neck.
- If you sleep on your back, try putting a pillow under your knees to reduce pressure on your spine.
2. When in doubt, stretch it out
A great way to both relieve and prevent a strained, stiff neck is with light stretching. Stretching is an excellent way to keep your muscles strong, flexible, and pain-free. When we forget to stretch, our muscles tighten and weaken, reducing our range of motion. A few effective stretches to relieve neck stiffness are shoulder rolls, neck rolls, and neck rotations. Just like with all stretches, experts recommend that you stretch for about 30 seconds at a time.
3. Get quick relief with massage therapy
Another fantastic way to relieve neck stiffness is with targeted massage therapy. Massage therapy works by strategically placing pressure on certain tissues to promote blood and lymph circulation. This enhanced circulation can warm your neck muscles, relieve soreness, and enhance your range of motion to combat neck stiffness. If you have somebody who can give you an on-demand shiatsu neck massage or can afford an appointment with a professional massage therapist, then you should definitely take advantage of it. For the rest of us, we can save time, money, and hours of discomfort with a professional-quality neck and back massager.
4. Ice and heat can help
Applying ice a few times a day for 20 minutes at a time can help relieve pain and inflammation in the tissues affected by neck stiffness. After about 48 hours, the ice will no longer relieve inflammation. At that point, it is recommended that you switch to heat treatment using a heating pad or hot water bottle to promote blood circulation and encourage your sore neck muscles to relax. It is important, however, that you neither apply ice directly to your skin nor treat your muscles with extreme heat.
5. They are usually nothing to worry about
A stiff neck is rarely the result of anything serious. Like we mentioned earlier, neck stiffness is more often than not the result of run-of-the-mill poor posture or repetitive movement. Generally speaking, neck pain is among the most common health conditions among adults in the U.S. today. Studies show that up to 70% of U.S. adults will experience neck pain that interferes with their daily activities during their lifetimes, and as we mentioned earlier, most neck stiffness will subside within one week depending on how you treat it. That said, even though your stiff neck isn’t life-threatening, it can still majorly disrupt your daily life.