We've all been there, fell asleep on the couch or in a chair or just woke up and felt a kink in the neck. Maybe you couldn't turn your head without pain. Many people pop an anti-inflammatory and wait for the effects to take hold or worse they stop moving their neck all together in an effort to stop the pain.
Many times when we just wake up with a stiff neck after one night of sleeping in the wrong position it is just that our muscles have gotten stiff and we need to get some blood flow to them in order to alleviate the pain. If you find yourself in the position that you wake up with a stiff neck, the worst thing you can do is not move it; however, it is equally as bad to try and jam your neck into certain positions that it does not want to go. Giving your neck time to heal and providing it with slow gentle movements will allow the muscles to loosen up and prevent any residual damage. If at any time while you are trying to loosen it up, the pain begins to get much worse or the pain becomes unbearable, you need to seek help from a medical professional and not continue trying to work it out on your own.
The video at the bottom of this post shows a few exercises that you can do upon rising and discovering that you have a stiff neck. If you are able to start these exercises under a hot shower that will help and the results will come faster. Just do not stand in the shower with your head hung down as that will most likely increase the pain, not decrease it.
Start with a gentle range of motion. Begin moving your head in small circles within a pain-free range. It does not matter how small the circles are, they will increase over time. If you are unable to start with circles, start very slowly moving your head from side to side, again just in a pain-free range of motion; do not push it to the point where it hurts. Do this several times until you start to see an increase in your range of motion. This is an indication that your muscles are starting to loosen up.
Next try an Upper Trap stretch. Now if you have a stiff neck you may not be able to do the full stretch without increasing the pain. Let your head gently drop to the side and then if you do not feel pain or only feel a gentle stretch, then you can provide some overpressure with the hand as seen in the video. You want to hold the stretch about 30 seconds and you want to do about 6 on each side.
End with some self-massage. You do not want to put your hands on your neck and pull forward as so many people do. In order to do self-massage effectively you want to use a ball. In the video we use a Beastie Ball but you can also use a tennis ball or a lacrosse ball. The least aggressive position is standing up and holding it against the wall and working all around your neck and shoulder and spine. Try to avoid rolling across the spine as that can be uncomfortable. If you do not feel that this is being effective then you can lay on the floor and begin to massage. However, this may increase the pain and you may not be able to tolerate the position.
The main thing to realize is that if you wind up waking up with a stiff neck, then you should immediately begin gentle exercises to fix it. Keeping still will only cause you more problems as you go along. Just make sure that as you start to move you keep it slow and in a pain-free range. If the pain gets worse or does not subside then seek medical attention from your health care provider.