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Neck Spasms

A neck spasm is an involuntary muscle contraction that usually happens in response to injury or overuse of the muscle, or as a reaction to pain caused by a separate condition. The muscle can remain in spasm for some time, which can severely restrict movement of the head, shoulder, and neck, and cause considerable pain.

The neck, anatomically known as the cervical spine, is constructed of seven cylindrical stacked vertebrae, beginning at the base of the skull and ending at the beginning of the thoracic spine. The vertebral bones protect the spinal cord, support the head, and allow a great deal of flexibility and movement. Between each bone is an intervertebral disc that acts as a shock absorber and allows the neck to bend and rotate. Openings in the vertebrae allow the passage of nerve fibers and blood vessels.

Muscles, muscle tendons, and ligaments in the neck and shoulders are crucial to the stability of the neck. They function to support the neck structure and permit a great deal of mobility. Unfortunately, the high level of flexibility in the neck, and the number of anatomical components leaves the neck vulnerable to damage.

Although a neck spasm is not a serious condition, it can be a symptom of a significant problem. See the symptoms listed below for indications that you should seek medical attention.

Due to the unique structure and flexibility of the neck, many conditions or injuries can cause neck muscles to spasm.

Some physical reasons might be muscle strain or sprain, muscle tension generated by pain, muscle exhaustion from overwork, or a bone fracture. Poor posture, particularly when seated for long periods, is a common cause of neck spasm.

Some underlying conditions that might result in spasm include cervical disc problems such as a herniated disc or degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; spinal stenosis (a narrow spinal canal); infection, either viral or of a bone or spinal joint; or a reaction to a prescribed drug such as Reglan or Haldol.

Psychological reasons for a neck to spasm are stress and depression.

Commonly experienced symptoms of neck spasm include the following:
  • Pain in the neck, upper back or shoulder when attempting to move the head
  • Stiffness of the neck, causing loss of ability to rotate or bend the neck
  • Tight, hard muscle
  • Headache at the back of the head
  • Possible twitching of the muscle
  • Possible twitching of the facial muscles or jerking of the head
If you experiencing any of the following symptoms as well as the above, you should seek immediate medical assistance:
  • Fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Intense headache
  • Numbness, tingling or pain in the arm or shoulder
  • Nausea
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Unusual sensitivity to light
  • Diagnosis:
    Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, including any previous problems with your neck. You will be asked about the type and severity of your current symptoms, and any circumstances that might have caused your neck to spasm. Your neck will be physically examined, during which the doctor will assess the range of motion that you have in the neck and the strength of your neck muscles.

    If the doctor suspects a particular condition might be causing your symptoms, diagnostic tests such as X-rays, CT (computerized tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans may be ordered. Depending on which tests are performed, clear pictures of your bones or soft tissues will be provided to aid with diagnosis.

    Treatment for neck spasm will depend on the underlying cause and will be geared towards resolving that problem.

    For symptoms generated by overwork, stress, muscle injury or similar, the following treatments should provide relief. It may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for your pain to completely resolve.
    Rest: Avoid any activity or movement that makes your pain worse. Sometimes, wearing a soft cervical collar for the first few days can help by supporting the head and relieving pressure on damaged tissues. Do not wear the collar excessively however, as this can lead to weakened muscles and a prolonged recovery.
    Ice: Apply ice, crushed in a bag and wrapped in a towel, to your neck and shoulder for as long as is comfortable, several times a day during the first two or three days of pain.
    Heat: After the first two or three days, you can apply heat to the neck and shoulders. Some people find that a warm moist towel is a good way to do this. Heat will relax your muscles, relieving spasm, and promote blood supply to the damaged tissues, stimulating healing.
    Pain medication: Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with pain relief. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin, taken according to directions, will relieve inflammation and associated pain. If necessary, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant. These tend to cause drowsiness so should only be taken at bedtime. If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may administer a corticosteroid injection into the painful area.
    Massage: Massage can help to relieve muscle spasm, and will promote blood supply. You can do this yourself, or have someone else give you a massage.
    Physical therapy: When your neck spasm has completely resolved, you may be advised to undertake an exercise program in order to stretch and strengthen the neck muscles, thereby reducing the risk of further injury. A therapist can also help you correct any postural problems you may have. You may also consider treatment for stress or depression if these conditions are causing your symptoms.

    Always seek medical approval before beginning an exercise program. Be very careful with these exercises: go slowly and do not force. You should not feel any pain.
    Stretch: Gently bend your head forwards, towards your chest. Bring your head back to neutral, and then bend the head backwards, as though you are looking at the ceiling. Bring your head back to neutral. Turn your head to the right and then the left. Tilt your head so that your ear moves towards the shoulder. Repeat to the opposite side. Rest.
    Strengthen: While performing these exercises, do not move the neck.
    1: Sitting, place the fingers of both hands on the forehead. Press the fingers against the head for a count of 5. Repeat 5-10 times.
    2: Sitting, place both hands on the back of the head. Press the hands against the head for a count of 5. Repeat 5-10 times.
    3: Sitting, place one hand against the side of the head, above the ear. Press the hand against the head for a count of 5. Repeat 5-10 times. Repeat exercise with the other hand.

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