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Health, The massage, Wellness

Wry neck (torticollis)

Wry neck, or torticollis, can happen very suddenly and without any obvious reason. The experts do not agree on what precisely causes it. Sometimes it can be caused by a trauma, a fall, a car accident or a sudden movement. In that case it’s always advisable to see a doctor to rule out more serious causes like a slipped disc or other things. Medication, inflammation and other conditions can cause wry neck as well. This is why it’s important to see a doctor should there be anything unusual, or if there’s radiated tingling and spasms in other places than the neck.

Most commonly people just wake up one day and feel their neck is stiff and it’s hard to move without feeling pain. A sudden turn of the head might ‘lock’ it so it becomes unbearable to move at all. The muscle locks up, becomes stiff and inflexible. The head gets fixed in the odd sideways position which is so uncomfortable and can render one unable to deal with a normal day.

A theory can be that a muscle has been under strain recently and suddenly something goes wrong. A nerve sends the wrong signal and the muscle spasms and locks up, becoming stiff and very painful. The ‘lock up’ is a natural defence mechanism to protect the delicate and fragile joints of the neck.

There are some things though which increases the risk of getting wry neck:

  • Sleeping on your stomach
  • Poor working posture before the computer
  • Strains to the neck which are provoked
  • Holding your shoulder/head in straining positions, like holding a phone between ear and shoulder or looking over the rim of your glasses.
  • Draft is said by some to be a reason, while others dispute it. I personally think the cold makes the muscles prone to tense up and possible spasm (get locked).

Wry neck is one of those things which can take weeks to recover from and in my experience quick and immediate action is the key to reduce the discomfort or even ‘unlock’ the spasmed muscle.

If you wake up with wry neck one morning, and there has been no trauma to your neck recently, you can do the following to reduce, if not elliminate the pain:

  • Stretch exercises. The muscle is locked up, in a form of cramp, so very slow and deliberate stretching can unlock the muscle and cause the spasm to go away.
  • Heat. Hot water or towels applied to the tense muscle might cause it to relax.
  • Movement. Where stretching is passive, active movement of the head can slowly bring the affected muscle(s) back to normal. Carefully rotate your head and use the muscles affected, though only to the pain-threshold, not beyond it. Pain in itself causes muscles to tense, so it’s important to be patient and take it one tiny step at a time.
  • Painkillers can be an option as well, since less pain will help the muscle relax. This can be useful for employing movement or stretching to address the problem.

In case of continuous discomfort contact a massage therapist or physiotherapist for treatment. Massage can be very useful for wry neck and the therapist will be able to speak to you about your situation and give you advice on how to deal with it.

If the pain remains very severe after the above advice, don’t hesitate to contact your own doctor as other things can be the cause of wry neck. A scan of your neck might be necessary to rule out any serious causes.

There are several things you can do in order to reduce the risk of wry neck, apart from the don’t dos mentioned above:

  • Examine, evaluate your posture and correct poor posture. You might need an ergo-therapist, osteopath or massage therapist to help you with this.
  • Regular stretch exercises for shoulder, neck, chest and back.
  • Strength training to support correct posture.
  • Exercise
  • Get regular massages. The massage therapist can catch potential problems before they become serious and normalize them. She can also advice you on posture, stretching, strength training and other things you can do to avoid wry neck.

Once you know what to keep an eye on and what steps to take, it is rather easy to avoid waking up with wry neck one morning. Also, when you know what to do it’s easy to quickly take action and stop the spasm from becoming a problem. The longer a muscle is locked, the longer it will take for it to unlock and become pain free again.

Relevant articles: Strength exercises, The importance of strength training, Postural distortion, Stretch exercises, Pain from computer and desk, When to get a massage, Frequency of massages.

About Pia Poulsen

Pia Poulsen is educated as a wellness massage therapist at Institut FIGARI in Paris, from where she passed her certification exam in January 2008. Since then she has expanded her skills to become the first Advanced LaStone® practitioner in France as well as a certified LaStone® instructor.


2 Responses to “Wry neck (torticollis)”

  1. I have been experiencing neck pain for some time (3 weeks). Your article supports my diagnosis that this is Wryneck. I will take your advice to confirm it with a doctor in the morning. This is a great artic no cost with excellent recommendation.

    Posted by Anonymous | Monday 1 February, 2010, 22:41
  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I hope your visit to the doctor went well and you find someone to treat your wryneck. Thank you for your words, I'm happy that my article was helpful to you.


    Posted by Pia | Wednesday 3 February, 2010, 10:50