Neck Spasm

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Introduction

What is a neck spasm?

Neck spasm is a sudden and involuntary contraction, or uncontrollable tightening and shaking, of a muscle in response to strain, overuse, weakness, or muscle pain related to injury or a disorder. In some conditions, such as cervical dystonia, the spasm may cause your head to turn or to jerk. Some, but not all, neck spasms occur close enough to the spinal cord or to the nerve roots leading in and out of the spinal cord to put pressure on one of these sensitive nerves and sometimes cause severe pain.

Neck spasms can be caused by a tic, muscle strain, or muscle tension, either from physical exertion, such as heavy lifting or a strenuous workout, or from tensing the muscles unconsciously in response to stress. You may also strain a muscle in response to pain from another condition. Neck spasms can also occur as a side effect of certain medications, including haloperidol (Haldol) and metoclopramide (Reglan).

In addition, neck spasms can be symptomatic of either an injury such as a fracture or another disorder, such as:

  • Spasmodic torticollis (also known as cervical dystonia)
  • Chronic disorder that causes involuntary movements of the neck)
  • Cervical spondylosis (degenerative disc disease in the neck) 
  • Herniated disc
  • Viral infection
  • Degenerative disc disease (caused by wear and tear and the effects of aging on the spine)
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal, creating pressure on the spinal cord or nerves)
  • Tension headache
  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)
  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)

Neck spasm in itself is not a serious condition, but in some cases it can be a symptom of a serious condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms of nerve compression, such as loss of sensation in the limbs or shoulders, a complete loss of balance, or if you have a stiff neck along with any of the following symptoms: high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), headache, increased sensitivity to light, or nausea with or without vomiting. Also seek immediate careif you experience pronounced weakness in the arms or abnormal sensations in the limbs or shoulders.

If your neck spasm is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with a neck spasm?

Neck spasm may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the neck or spine may also involve other body systems.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with a neck spasm

Neck spasm may accompany other symptoms affecting the musculoskeletal system including:

Neurologic symptoms that may occur along with a neck spasm

Neck spasm may accompany symptoms related to the neurologic system including:

  • Headache (particularly in the back of the head)
  • Involuntary jerking or twisting of the head and facial muscles
  • Nerve problems that cause pain, numbness or tingling in an arm or shoulder

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, neck spasm may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have neck spasm along with other serious symptoms including:

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Loss of sensation in a limb or limbs
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Stiff neck

Causes

What causes a neck spasm?

Neck spasms can be caused by a muscle strain or muscle tension, either from physical exertion or from tensing the muscles unconsciously in response to stress.

Physical causes of a neck spasm

Neck spasm may be caused by external physical conditions including:

  • Fracture
  • Muscle strain (physical overexertion)
  • Muscle tension (stress-induced or in reaction to pain elsewhere)
  • Physical overexertion (heavy lifting or strenuous exercise)

Pathologic causes of a neck spasm

Neck spasms may be symptomatic of a primary disorder including:

  • Cervical dystonia (spasmodic torticollis, a condition that causes painful neck muscle spasms
  • Cervical spondylosis (wear and tear on the bones of the cervical spine)
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Drug side effects, for example, from metoclopramide (Reglan) or haloperidol (Haldol)
  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)
  • Herniated disc
  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  • Spondylitis (infection or inflammation of the spinal joints)
  • Tension headache
  • Tic (disorder of harmless involuntary movements)
  • Viral infection

Serious or life-threatening causes of a neck spasm

In some cases, neck spasm may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Tumors

Questions for diagnosing the cause of a neck spasm

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your neck spasm including:

  • How long have you had these spasms?
  • Do they cause any jerking of your head?
  • Have you also had a stiff neck?
  • Have you had a high fever? Any headaches? Sensitivity to light?
  • Have you had any nausea with or without vomiting?
  • Do you experience any tingling, numbness, or loss of sensation in any part of your body?
  • Have you experienced episodes of weakness in any of your muscles?
  • How is your balance? Any trouble with coordination?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of a neck spasm?

Because neck spasm can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Chronic or permanent pain
  • Eventual reduced flexibility and mobility
  • Paralysis
  • Permanent nerve damage or disability
  • Progressive pain, weakness, and loss of muscle function
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Nov 21
  1. Back spasm. Cedars-Sinai. http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Patients/Health-Conditions/Back-Spasm.aspx
  2. Charley horse. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002066.htm
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