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Stiffness up the side of the neck when turning

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How People Describe This Pain Pattern

People complain about pain while turning the head and usually trace up and down the side of their neck while talking about it. Often, they complain about turning to look when they change lanes or tend to a child in the back seat. They usually have trouble turning it to the side that hurts but occasionally have difficulty turning it the other way. Consequently, they tend to turn to look to the side with their eyes or by turning their shoulders. This is the problem that makes it difficult to turn to change lanes while driving.

Picking Things Up

They also wince when lifting the shoulder with their arm beside them. Also, this pain can happen when people are picking up a purse that is on the floor. Others stiffly reach down to get the keys and phone after standing up. They “tell” is when they also tilt their head that way as they reach. Additionally, this trigger point can make it painful to hang a bag on that shoulder or carry a case in that hand.

Stiff Movement

When it is very restricted and stiff, they lean their head to that side. Some people hike the shoulder a little instead of tilting the head. When I’m speaking with them, they might prop that elbow on the arm of the chair to ease the tension.

Also, they may complain about soreness under the shoulder blade. People describe this as tension or that they “can kinda feel it” more often than as pain. When this happens, they usually describe a focus of pain on the top corner of the shoulder and radiating up as they turn.

How You Activate and Intensify This Pain Pattern

You can activate intensify this pattern in several ways.

Slept Wrong

Most commonly, people say that they “slept wrong.” Also, I’ve created this by leaning my head to one side for a long time. For me, this happens when I’m leaning my head against something like the arm of the couch while watching a movie. The arm of the sofa may awkwardly support my head, but I don’t want to move as it would wake up the kid who I just got to sleep with.

Hobbling with Hiking Shoulder

Also, people complain about this after using a walking cane, leaning on a handrail while using the treadmill, and other one-sided activities where they are pushing down.  One client had regular problems with this. So, I sent him to a physical therapist to get properly fit and trained to use a four-footed cane.

Visual Problems

Ill-fitted glasses also aggravate this trigger point. The lenses create little tilting and twisting movements that escalate the trigger point activity once they get active. Detailed tasks with lots of head movements also exacerbate this. This pain in the neck aggravates my favorite cookie maker during the holiday season. She sits at the table, tediously pressing little angels and stars out of dough, and chopping nuts into uniform sizes. She will twist her neck and squint her eyes until she asks me to work on it.

Typing with high, tight shoulders, especially while turning to review material also aggravates this condition. This scenario involves both activities that escalate the pain of a latent trigger point.

The Musculoskeletal Anatomy Behind Your Pain

Musculoskeletal Anatomy

About these Illustrations…

There’s a funny twist in this muscle and it has a number of statistically significant anomalies. Take a look at this post on the anatomy of the levator scapula muscle.

This pain pattern is very is common, and most people can activate a mild version of this pattern by turning their head to the right until it stops

Getting Relief on Your Own

Clinically Proven
Self-Care Strategies

This post has stretches, exercise, and changes in your activities for relief from this stiffness up the side of the neck.

Therapy Notes for Massage and Bodywork

Better Bodywork
Through Shared Expertise

This post has techniques, tips, treatment routines, and anatomy illustrations to improve the bodyworker’s approach.

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Tony Preston has a practice in Atlanta, Georgia, where he sees clients. He has written materials and instructed classes since the mid-90s. This includes anatomy, trigger points, cranial, and neuromuscular.

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*This site is undergoing significant changes. We are reformatting and expanding the posts to make them easier to read. The result will also be more accessible and include more patterns with better self-care. Meanwhile, there may be formatting, content presentation, and readability inconsistencies. Until we get older posts updated, please excuse our mess.