Woke Up With a Stiff Neck? Here’s What to Do Next

Updated: Jun. 17, 2021

That stiff neck feeling is a literal pain in the neck. But luckily there are lots of ways to ease the pain, right from your own home.

woman rubbing neck

Give your neck a gentle stretch

There are a number of neck stretches that can help to relieve the pain of a stiff neck. Shelly Coffman, a physical therapist at 360° Sports Medicine and Spine Therapy in Portland, OR, recommends the following to get blood flowing and relieve inflammation: Lie down flat, with a rolled towel or partially-inflated beach ball behind your neck. Rotate your head slowly as if saying “no.” Then nod your head slowly as if saying “yes.” Do two sets each of 20 reps, two to three times a day. Another move: While sitting in a chair, bring one arm across your body toward the opposite hip and hold that hand with your other hand. Keeping your head and body facing forward, bend your ear toward the same shoulder as your hands. Hold for 10-15 seconds. Repeat three to five times on each side, once or twice a day. Another chair exercise: While sitting in a chair, grasp the bottom of the chair with one hand. Tilt your ear toward the opposite shoulder, using your other hand to gently pull your head down to increase the stretch. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat three times.

woman holding compress to neck

Apply hot and cold compresses

Applying heat to your stiff neck helps to relax the muscles and bring fresh blood to the sore spot, Coffman says. You can get the heat you need with a heating pad set on low or a warm washcloth. Alternating with a cold compress helps to numb the pain and bring down inflammation. You can alternate between hot and cold for up to 10 minutes at a time of each, several times a day and up to every hour if you’re experiencing a lot of discomfort. If you are feeling a lot of pain—not just stiffness—stick with the ice, cautions Coffman. Heat can make pain worse by increasing inflammation. Try these cooling and heated neck wraps to start finding relief.

man with pills in hand

Break out the meds

Anti-inflammatory drugs, like Advil or Motrin, can be quick-acting stiff neck remedies. These over-the-counter drugs work by reducing inflammation, so you can feel better fast, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Tylenol does not confer the same anti-inflammatory benefits, but it can help with pain management. However, all drugs, even over-the-counter drugs, have risks, so be sure to discuss these medications with your pharmacist or doctor first. Learn the best pain reliever for every ache.

woman in bathtub

Take a soak

A warm Epsom salt bath soak does double duty as a stiff neck remedy. The warm water from the bath helps to relax and sooth the muscles, while the magnesium and sulfates in the salt help to reduce inflammation and improve blood flow and oxygenation, according to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “Put 300 grams of Epsom salt into a bathtub filled with hot water. In just 15 minutes, you will start to experience the mental and physical benefits of Epsom salt,” experts at Cleveland Clinic write. Check out these 11 surprising uses for Epsom salts you’ve probably never thought of.

feet walking on path

Walk it out

It may seem counter intuitive, but low-impact exercise, like walking, is a great stiff neck treatment. Exercise helps to circulate oxygen through all the soft tissues—including in the spine—which helps with the healing process. “Just like when you’re sore from exercise—the best thing you can do is to do a little bit of easy exercise,” says Coffman. Be sure to avoid jerking or painful activities though.

woman sleeping in bed

Change your sleep habits

To avoid neck pain in the morning, it’s best to sleep on your side or on your back and never on your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach can lead to twisting your head one way or the other for long stretches of time, which can hurt your neck. Additionally, it can cause lower back pain if your stomach sinks into the bed. You may also consider buying a new pillow. When shopping for a pillow, look for one that will support the natural curve of your neck. Here’s the best sleep position for 11 common health problems.

man at computer

You’ve got to work it

Often neck pain is exacerbated by poor posture. And often that poor posture is a result of poor computer positioning at work. Keep your computer at eye level. That means your eyes should be right at the middle of the screen when you’re sitting up nice and straight. And avoid tilting or twisting your head to the side or down when you’re typing away. You want to have your neck, shoulders and hips all facing toward the computer, and everything within a comfortable reach and gaze. Coffman recommends doing a “posture check” for one minute every hour. Think about being pulled tall like a marionette, with shoulders relaxed and heavy, being pulled toward your back pockets. This gets your spine into a naturally good alignment. “Holding that for a minute every hour is doable, and comfortable,” says Coffman. “Pretty soon, people might find themselves correcting themselves more often because it feels good, and definitely better.” Bad posture may affect your health in ways beside neck pain.

man holding cell phone

Phone home (but with caution)

Poor posture with handheld devices can also contribute to stiff neck pain, as most people bend over to look at their phones. It’s been dubbed ‘tech or text neck‘ for obvious reasons.  Instead, lift your phone up to eye level, rather than staring down at your lap to check your messages, according to information from the Cleveland Clinic. If you must look down, take frequent breaks so that you’re not bending forward for long stretches. If you make frequent calls on your phone, try putting the phone on speaker or use a headset to avoid cradling the phone between your shoulder and ear.

woman in driver's seat

Drive this way

Focusing intently on driving can make your neck pain worse, especially if you find yourself craning forwards or looking down. You can help the pain by starting with good driving posture, experts at the Cleveland Clinic point out. You want your seat just slightly back. Your headrest should be touching the middle of the back of your head. Your lower back should be flush against the seat. If your car does not have lumbar support, you can place a small pillow against the seat to provide this support. If your seat tilts down, giving the seat a little downward tilt allows your pelvis to provide better support for your whole body. Lastly, move up your seat so that you don’t have to lean forward to reach the steering wheel. Once you’re in proper position, you shouldn’t feel too much strain while driving on short drives. But longer drives can still take a toll. Make sure to get out and stretch and walk around a bit to keep your neck limber.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest