The Difference Between Neck Pain and Neck Spasms

Neck PainNeck Spasms

Dr. Kaliq Chang with Atlantic Spine Center explains neck spasms and how to treat them.

Neck Pain or Neck Spasm: How to Tell the Difference

Talk about a real pain in the neck: Neck spasms take a common form of discomfort to the next level. But fortunately, a variety of home-based treatments can help, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.

What’s the difference between run-of-the-mill neck pain and neck spasms? Spasms occur when the muscles in your neck contract suddenly and involuntarily, triggering severe, sharp pain; trouble moving the neck and shoulders; a headache; or even dizziness or tingling in the base of the neck, Dr. Chang explains. “When neck spasms strike, the effects can be extreme,” says Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist who’s double board-certified in interventional pain management and anesthesiology. “The muscles in your neck feel tight, hard and painful, and tender spots in your neck – often called trigger points – can prompt pain in areas around your neck. It’s difficult to do anything else when your neck is in spasms.”

Causes of Neck Spasms

What brings on neck spasms? Culprits range from the minor to the serious, Dr. Chang says, and include:

  • Sitting for extended periods in front of a computer
  • Turning suddenly while sleeping
  • Repetitive neck movements
  • Wearing a heavy bag on one shoulder
  • Carrying a heavy item, especially with just one arm
  • Cradling a phone against the neck
  • Emotional stress
  • Poor posture
  • Whiplash or other physical trauma
  • Back conditions such as spinal stenosis or herniated disc
  • Medical conditions such as meningitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord

If you’re not sure what triggered your neck spasm and are experiencing other alarming symptoms, such as weakness, numbness or fever, see a doctor.

Unfortunately, it’s usually tricky to predict how long pain from neck spasms can last, Dr. Chang says. “It can linger from a few days to a few weeks,” he notes. “If you can trace your symptoms to a particular activity, it’s important to stop doing that activity until your muscles have healed and the pain has eased. Otherwise, it will take longer to recover.”

Causes of Neck Pain

Neck pain is a common complaint that can result from various factors, ranging from minor issues to more severe underlying conditions. Understanding the potential causes of neck pain is essential for appropriate management and seeking timely medical attention when necessary. Some common causes of neck pain include:

  • One of the most frequent causes of neck pain is muscle strain or tension. Poor posture, prolonged sitting or computer use, and sudden movements can strain the neck muscles, leading to discomfort and stiffness.
  • The discs that cushion the vertebrae in the neck can degenerate over time due to aging or wear and tear, leading to conditions like cervical spondylosis. This can result in neck pain and, in some cases, compression of nerves causing radiating pain down the arms.
  • Whiplash injury or trauma occurs when the neck is forcefully jerked forward and backward, commonly seen in car accidents or contact sports. This can strain the neck's soft tissues, leading to pain and reduced range of motion.
  • A herniated disc in the neck can occur when the soft inner material of a disc protrudes outward, putting pressure on nearby nerves and causing neck pain as well as arm pain or weakness.
  • Nerves in the neck can become pinched or compressed due to disc herniation, bone spurs, or other conditions, resulting in localized neck pain and potential radiating symptoms down the arms.
  • Osteoarthritis can affect the facet joints in the neck, causing inflammation, stiffness, and neck pain.
  • Spinal stenosis refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal, which can compress the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to neck pain and neurological symptoms.
  • Maintaining poor posture over extended periods can strain the neck and surrounding muscles, leading to chronic neck pain.
  • Falls, sports injuries, or accidents can cause direct trauma to the neck, resulting in pain and potential damage to structures in the cervical spine.
  • Infections or inflammatory conditions like meningitis, arthritis, or fibromyalgia can also cause neck pain as a symptom.

It's essential to pay attention to the duration, intensity, and associated symptoms of neck pain. While many cases of neck pain resolve with conservative measures like rest, heat or ice therapy, and over-the-counter pain relievers, persistent or severe neck pain should prompt a visit to a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation and appropriate management. In some instances, imaging studies and further tests may be necessary to identify the exact cause of the neck pain and choose effective treatment options.

Treating Neck Pain and Neck Spasms

In the meantime, a variety of exercises and home-based remedies can help speed up the recovery process after experiencing necks spasms. Treatment tactics include:

  • Stretches: This may be the quickest, most effective remedy, Dr. Chang says. “Gently stretch the muscles in spasm, repeating these stretches as needed as the muscles calm down,” he adds.
  • Massage: Placing pressure on the neck muscles – either with your own or someone else’s hands – can help knead tightness away.
  • Ice or heat: Ice packs, gel packs or frozen vegetables are the cold form of this treatment, while moist heating pads or wet washcloths are the heated form. Apply whichever temperature therapy feels best, for example, to strained muscles. Repeat every few hours for 20 minutes or so at a time.
  • Medications: Over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen can ease pain and calm inflamed muscles, Dr. Chang says, or your doctor can prescribe a higher-strength version.
  • Physical therapy: Your doctor may prescribe a course of physical therapy to provide certain exercises and other treatments for neck spasms.
  • Steroid injections: If non-invasive treatments don’t help, your doctor may inject a steroid or pain reliever into the affected neck area.

As always, of course, prevention is far preferable to experiencing neck spasms in the first place – or suffering a recurrence, Dr. Chang says. “You can avoid the most common triggers of neck spasms by practicing good posture while you walk and sit at a computer, taking frequent breaks, and stretching your neck muscles several times a day,” he advises.