What Causes Muscle Spasms in the Neck? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP

A neck spasm is a sudden and involuntary contraction or tightening of a muscle in the neck. Possible causes of neck spasms include strain, stress, injury, or an underlying medical condition. A neck spasm may feel tight or like a knot. It may make it difficult for you to turn your head.

Read on to find out more about the causes of neck spasms. This guide also looks at treatments and home remedies for neck spasms, when to contact a doctor and more.

What causes a neck spasm?

A person experiencing neck pain
Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Getty Images

There are numerous causes of neck spasms, including:

  • muscle injury
  • strain from overuse of the neck muscle
  • emotional stress
  • underlying medical condition

Muscle injury

Injuring your neck can result in muscle spasms. Examples of causes of injury include:

It is important to seek medical advice if you experience a neck injury.

Learn more about neck injuries.

Muscle strain

Overusing your neck muscles can cause muscle strain. This typically happens from overuse.

This includes activities where you sit in the same position for any length of time, such as when working at a computer.

Muscle strain can lead you to have a stiff neck. Learn more about the causes of stiff necks.

You can also learn more about muscle strains.

Emotional stress

Emotional stress can cause pain in the neck and back. You may also experience headaches from tension in the neck.

If you experience frequent bouts of stress, you may develop musculoskeletal problems.

Learn more about stress.

Other causes

Conditions associated with muscle spasms include:

Neck spasms can lead to other conditions, such as tension headaches. Contact a doctor as soon as you have concerns about neck spasms.

Learn more about conditions that can cause neck pain.

Can I relieve a neck spasm at home?

You can take steps at home to alleviate the pain due to neck spasms.

Home remedies for neck spasms include:

  • taking pain relief medication such as ibuprofen or paracetamol
  • applying heat packs or a cool compress to your neck
  • keeping active where possible so that your neck muscles do not remain in the same position
  • quitting smoking if you smoke

How do you sleep with neck muscle spasms?

If you experience neck muscle spasms, sleeping with a low, firm pillow can help to alleviate your symptoms.

It is important to sleep with your head level with your body. Avoid sleeping on your front or twisting your neck as you sleep.

What are the treatments for neck spasms?

Treatments for neck spasms depend on the underlying cause. If neck spasms occur due to a medical condition, treating the condition may alleviate your symptoms. A doctor will be able to advise on specific treatments for your condition.

Medical treatments your doctor may recommend for muscle spasms include:

  • botulinum toxin injections about every 3 months
  • medications to relax muscles and reduce inflammation
  • deep brain stimulation surgery

Doctors may recommend deep brain stimulation surgery for conditions such as dystonia. Your surgeon will insert a small device under your skin, near your chest or stomach.

This device then sends electrical signals to wires your surgeon will place in the part of your brain that controls movement.

Learn more about deep brain stimulation.

What exercises can help a neck spasm?

Doing neck exercises may help alleviate neck spasms. Contact a doctor before any neck exercises to ensure the exercise is right for you.

Possible neck exercises include:

  • neck stretching
  • neck tilting
  • neck turning

Neck stretching

To stretch your neck:

  1. Keep your body straight and push your chin forward.
  2. Gently tense the muscles in your neck. Hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Bring your chin back to center and push your head backward. Push your chin up for 5 seconds.
  4. Bring your head back to center.
  5. Repeat 5 times.

Neck tilting

To tilt your neck from side to side:

  1. Tilt your ear toward your shoulder, keeping your shoulder still. Hold for 5 seconds.
  2. Bring your head back to center.
  3. Tilt your other ear toward your shoulder and hold for 5 seconds.
  4. Bring your head back to center.
  5. Repeat 5 times on each side.

To tilt your neck down:

  1. Slowly tilt your head to rest your chin on your chest.
  2. Gently tense the muscles in your neck. Hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Bring your head back to center.
  4. Repeat 5 times.

Neck turning

To turn your neck:

  1. Turn your head to one side.
  2. Gently tense the muscles in your neck. Hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Return your head to center.
  4. Turn your head to the other side.
  5. Gently tense the muscles in your neck. Hold for 5 seconds.
  6. Return your head to center.
  7. Repeat 5 times on each side.

Learn about neck exercises for cervical spondylosis.

When should I see a doctor?

Contact a doctor if you experience a neck injury, including falls and sports activities.

You should also contact your doctor if you have concerns about neck spasms or if:

  • neck spasms or pain persists after a few weeks
  • your symptoms do not respond to pain relief medication
  • you experience other symptoms such as a cold arm or pins and needles

Find out more about when to contact a doctor for neck pain.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of neck spasms?

To assist with diagnosis, your doctor may take a full medical history and perform a physical examination. They may then order tests to reach an accurate diagnosis.

The tests your doctor recommends can depend on which other symptoms you present. The tests can rule out certain conditions and help identify the cause of neck spasms.

Tests might include:

Your doctor can explain the tests in more detail.

Questions your doctor may ask

Your doctor may ask you questions to better understand your symptoms. Examples of questions they might ask include:

  • How long have you experienced muscle spasms?
  • Do they cause any jerking of your head?
  • Have you also had a stiff neck?
  • 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?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What symptoms are related to neck spasms?

Depending on the cause of the neck spasms, you may experience other symptoms.

Other symptoms that may occur due to pressure on the spinal cord or a nerve root include:

  • arm pain
  • arm or forearm numbness
  • arm or leg weakness
  • tingling sensation in the hand or fingers
  • balance or walking difficulties

You should seek immediate medical advice if you experience any of the following symptoms alongside neck spasms:

  • neck pain following a blow to the head
  • headache
  • fever
  • new inability to touch your chin to your chest
  • shooting pain in one arm
  • loss of coordination

Can I prevent a neck spasm?

If neck spasms occur from an underlying medical condition, then contacting your doctor as soon as you experience symptoms may help to prevent neck spasms.

Following diagnosis, your doctor can advise on the best treatments for the condition, which may alleviate your neck spasms.

Steps you can take at home to reduce the risk of neck spasms include:

  • using a pillow that keeps your head at the same level as the rest of your body
  • sleeping with a firm mattress
  • sitting with your shoulders rolled back
  • keeping active, as staying in the same position for a length of time can damage your neck
  • avoiding sleeping on your front or twisting your neck when lying in bed

Summary

Neck spasms can make your neck feel tight or knotted. There are numerous causes of neck spasms, including medical conditions, injury, overuse, and emotional stress.

Contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about neck spasms. They can order tests to reach a diagnosis. They will then recommend the best treatment for you.

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Medical Reviewer: Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 30
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