Neck spasms are involuntary muscle contractions in the neck, head, and back area as low as the shoulders. These spasms, sometimes called a charley horse or a cramp, are often accompanied by pain. Neck spasms can last any amount of time between an errant twitch, or a very long period of time, depending on the nature of the spasm itself. The causes of neck spasms vary, ranging between psychological origins, such as anxiety and stress, to physiological ones, such as muscle strain or a whiplash injury, to some pathogens which can manifest neck spasms as a symptom, such as tetanus and some viral infections.
When a muscle is over-used, or tired, the muscle cells within the fibers of the muscle itself runs out of self-controlled energy and fluid, resulting in a state of “hyperexcitability”. This means that rather than contractions being triggered by voluntary neural synapse, the muscle may activate at random, involuntary intervals. Pain is caused when the contraction of the muscle exerts force on surrounding tissue. Stress tends to build up knots of fluid in muscles. Spasms with fluid nearby can sometimes cause what is called a super-knot, which makes nearby muscles begin to involuntarily contract as well, resulting in spasms across an entire muscle group.
Unlike muscle cramps in large skeletal muscles, such as those exhibited by athletes, neck cramps are not necessarily strenuous exertion. Awkward sleeping posture, previous injury, herniated discs, and poor nutrition, such as a lack of vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium, can all cause neck spasms. Sodium is necessary for muscle contraction and regulation, and a deficiency of sodium results in a loss of muscle control, causing cramps. Tetanus is a disease characterized by muscle cramps, which can result in neck spasms, generally following symptoms such as facial spasms and stiffness of the neck.
Neck cramp treatment focuses on the management of pain, and prevention of future spasms. Massage and ice can be useful for relieving pain and muscle knots. Medication such as ibuprofin can relieve pain, and medicated balms, such as those containing menthol, can heat and soothe the affected spasm area. In cases of particularly discomforting spasms, muscle relaxants can be used to treat, using medication to directly relax neck muscles.
Because of the location of neck spasms, particularly forceful spasms have the potential to result in spinal injury, and should always be taken seriously. Neck cramps have their unique problems and causes, but can be avoided with preventative care, and treated by seeing your doctor when symptoms arise.