Acute torticollis or wry neck is a term used for a stiff and painful neck that can feel “locked”. The neck can become stuck at an odd angle and any attempt to move the neck towards the neutral position will result in sharp pain, mostly on one side of the neck. It can be quite a frightening and painful experience.
Most often the affected person cannot remember a specific incident that caused the neck to become stuck. Usually someone will wake up in the morning with a stiff neck or sometimes it occurs after sitting/lying with their neck at an odd angle such as on the armrest of a couch. It can also be caused by poor posture, squeezing a phone between your ear and your shoulder or by looking down at your phone for extended periods of time. Some may remember a specific incident such as a sport injury or getting a fright where the neck suddenly tensed up. For others, it may be a gradual build-up of stress that causes the muscles in the neck to become tense. Finding the exact cause may be tricky as it can also be caused by an underlying issue.
Other causes include degeneration in the discs and facet joints of the spine that gradually become stiff and painful. As the spaces between the discs become thinner, pressure on the discs and facet joints increase which could lead to muscle and joint irritation and muscle spasms. It may also be due to upper respiratory infections that cause muscle contractures. If there are any associated symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, fever, blurred vision or fainting or other worrying symptoms the person would need to see a medical professional immediately.
Just as with an ankle sprain, the neck joints and muscles take time to heal and even though the initial pain may settle within a few days, there may still be some pain or stiffness for up to 6 weeks. It is possible to have your neck “unlocked” by a professional who will help relax the muscle spasm and do joint mobilisation techniques to help the stiff joints to start moving again. Regardless of receiving treatment, the neck should settle by itself within a few days. Seeing a professional may help things along and guide the recovery process to ensure that there are no problems further down the line and can help identify any predisposing factors to the injury.
Other management strategies include:
- Using Paracetamol or Ibuprofen (consult your pharmacist or GP before starting any new medication)
- Applying heat such as a warm bath/shower or hot water bottle.
- Gentle movement of the neck to keep it mobile
- It is not recommended to wear a soft collar
- It is not recommended to drive as it may be too difficult and painful to turn the head
- Ensure the pillow is supportive and not too thick or too thin
- The cause of the stiff neck needs to be addressed to prevent future occurrences