If you’ve woken up with a stiff and painful neck, that’s twisted to one side, you may have torticollis. When the symptoms of a twisted (or wry) neck appear suddenly (such as overnight), it is called acute torticollis.
Torticollis usually causes pain on one side of your neck but you may feel pain in the middle of the neck and in the shoulders and head. Your neck may be very tender and if you try to massage the area, to provide some relief, it’s possible your neck muscles will spasm. You may also find it difficult to straighten your neck or turn your head a particular way.
Symptoms of a twisted neck will usually disappear completely within a week, and they usually ease considerably within one or two days. Sometimes symptoms last longer, but this is not common.
Torticollis is the most common cause of neck pain in young people and it’s not generally associated with a previous neck injury or neck pain.
Causes of torticollis
Torticollis may be caused by:
- sitting or sleeping awkwardly, without sufficient support for your head
- poor posture, such as at a workstation that is not ergonomically suited to you
- carrying bags with unequal amounts of weight that cause your neck to strain, for example, a handbag on one side and heavy shopping bags on the other
- sleeping or sitting in a draughty room, where the neck is exposed to the cold.
You should see a doctor if:
- the pain is getting worse
- the pain doesn’t ease up in a week or so
- you have numbness, tingling or pins, and needles in your arms or legs
- you start having difficulties with your bladder or bowel you have a fever as well as neck pain.
- Keep active and move your neck as normally as possible. You should try not to make sudden movements for a day or so, but then you try to carry on with your normal routines and move your head and neck to prevent it stiffening up.
- Try gently moving your neck in circles and moving it backwards, forwards and to either side to loosen the muscles and keep your neck supple.
- Get advice on suitable pain relief medicines.
- Apply a heat pad or ice pack, which may relieve neck stiffness and pain. And to reduce your chances of future episodes of neck pain, you can:
- Improve your posture with gentle stretching exercises, such as those popular in activities such as yoga or Pilates.
- Arrange your work space so that your desk and chair are suitable for your needs. Ask for a footrest if you find that your knees and hips are not level and your feet do not sit flat on the ground. You may also need to move items that you use regularly closer to you, so that you don’t twist or reach too far to find items you need.
- Support your neck while sleeping with a support pillow, and sleep with just one pillow.
- Make sure your neck is supported in the car by adjusting the headrest so that it is at least at eye level and as close to the back of your head as possible. You can see images of the correct position on the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents website. Don’t drive if you can’t turn your head properly.