Has anyone ever woken up and been unable to turn their head?? Suffering from an “acute wry neck” can be excruciating and very frightening at the same time! This is sometimes seen in the traveling athlete. Long flights, train rides and sleeping in different beds with unfamiliar pillows can all be triggers.
If you have ever experienced this, or know of anybody who has, you will agree that the pain is extremely severe, but thankfully this condition is not long lasting. With the correct management, an acute wry neck can be resolved in as little as 2-5 days. So fear not!
An acute wry neck can occur upon waking up one morning with intense pain, for no particular reason. Alternatively, it is sometimes an immediate onset after a sudden, quick movement of the head or arm. Sometimes just reaching across to the alarm clock or lamp on the bedside table in the morning can bring it on.
An acute wry neck will give very nasty, sharp pain usually on one side of the neck, and sometimes extending down to the shoulder blade area or upper back. The head will be tilted and sometimes rotated to the side, with grossly restricted range of movement available in all directions. Commonly, it may be too painful to even straighten the head to a neutral position, due to surrounding muscle spasm.
The reason for a wry neck can be two-fold. Most often, there is a “locking” or restriction of movement at one of the facet joints on the side of the vertebrae bones in the upper neck. This is often seen in children or young adults. Secondly, the source of this restriction may be from a disc, which is usually a more gradual onset, seen in the lower part of the neck and is commonly seen in the older person, perhaps with an underlying degenerative spine.
Treatment can begin as early as the same day the pain appears, and often this is the case. Somebody suffering from an acute wry neck is desperate for some help and advice as soon as possible. Physiotherapy is extremely effective for this condition. Treatment will often begin lying face-up, as this position assists in easing muscle tension. Techniques used may include massage to relieve muscle spasm and guarding, to then allow effective vertebral joint mobilisation by your qualified Physiotherapist. Medications may be useful in some situations to reduce pain and muscle spasm. At home, a useful technique is to lie face-up, resting an ice-pack behind your neck near the base of your head. With a towel wrapped around the ice-pack and continued around the sides of your neck, this can act like a scarf, providing support for the neck. It can also be useful to gently pull the ends of the towel with your hands to encourage gentle head rotation to each side, with your head staying supported on a pillow. In fact, both ice and heat are safe to apply. A wheat bag or hot water bottle will assist in relaxing the spasming muscles and can often lead to increased range of movement.
Most of all in this situation, it is important to stay calm. Remember that an acute wry neck should resolve in 2-5 days with the correct management. Seek treatment or at least advice from your Physiotherapist as soon as possible.