Acute Wry Neck

Have you ever had a stiff and painful neck that seems to be stuck in one position? This typically happens all of a sudden or upon waking in the morning, and is known as Acute Wry Neck or Torticollis.

Acute wry neck is associated with pain and stiffness. It is often accompanied by spasm of the neck muscles. This muscle spasm is what causes the pain and restricts your ability to move your neck.

Acute wry neck can be debilitating as it causes severe pain with even the smallest neck movement.

The exact cause of wry neck is not fully understood, but is thought to be caused by a sudden, jerky movement of the neck or simply by sleeping, or resting, with the neck in an awkward position.

Our necks are made up of vertebrae, intervertebral discs and joints. There are two small swivel joints at each level of your spine, one on each side. These joints allow smooth gliding movements and turning of your neck.

Both a rapid, jerky movement and a sustained awkward position of the neck can result in a sprain or irritation of one or more of the joints and it’s associated soft tissues. Sometimes there is an entrapment of synovial membrane within one of the joints, which can cause an acutely painful ‘pinching’ in the neck.

The great news is that acute wry neck can be easily managed with physiotherapy and treatments you can do at home.

Symptoms of Acute Wry Neck are:

  • Pain that is generally located in the middle and side of the neck.
  • Pain that occurs suddenly.
  • Pain that does not generally extend beyond the shoulder
  • Restricted movement, and your head/neck can be ‘stuck’ in a weird position (it is often flexed forward and rotated away from the painful side).
  • Pain with all neck movements, but turning towards the painful side is the worst.
  • Spasm of the surrounding muscles, in response to the joint irritation that can restrict movement further.

Treatment of Acute Wry Neck:

Physiotherapy is often the treatment of choice for wry neck. As with most musculoskeletal problems, the most important part is getting a clear diagnosis so the appropriate treatment can start straight away.

Your physiotherapist will assess your neck to diagnose the problem, and will also be able to determine the vertebral level(s) involved. They will then devise a treatment plan to decrease the pain and get your neck moving again. Your physio will use a variety of different treatment techniques such as heat, soft tissue massage to reduce muscle spasm, gentle mobilisation to improve joint mobility, and exercises to restore neck movement.

Symptoms of an acute wryneck neck will usually ease considerably within one or two days, and disappear completely within five to ten days. At times symptoms can last longer. Some people take two to three weeks to regain full pain free movement, however this is not common.

If you experience a wry neck the best thing you can do is come in and see one of our Physiotherapists as soon as possible. You can book an appointment at any of our clinics by calling 6424 7511, or through our online booking system.

About the Author:

Heather Cooper is a Physiotherapist at Physiotas in Launceston.

Heather is a postgraduate APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist with a background in Exercise and Sports Science. Her areas of expertise include tendinopathy, shoulders, children’s and adult sports injuries, Pilates, and exercise management of osteoporosis.

As a trained Pilate’s practitioner Heather has a strong focus on exercise based active rehabilitation, assisting clients recover from acute and chronic injuries. Heather instructs some of our weekly Clinical Pilates classes, in addition to the rehabilitation class. Heather has recently completed further training in the management of shoulder injuries, in particularly rotator cuff tears and tendinopathy, as well as tendinopathies of the upper and lower limbs.

Heather enjoys an active lifestyle.  Her favourite activities include running, cycling, bush walking, gardening and yoga.