Did I just sleep wrong? I have a crick in my neck!

Neck-PainI think I have slept wrong, they tell me.

That’s what I hear almost daily. It’s usually persistent neck pain and stiffness, often with limited range of motion–so it’s hard to turn your head when you’re driving, you notice that you’re shifting in the seat.

If it came on suddenly, you woke up with it, maybe you did actually sleep “wrong”.

The worst thing about sleep, even if you’re sleeping “right”, is that you’re in the same position for a long time. The whole body needs movement to function. While we’re sleeping, we’re still moving–even if we’re not tossing and turning.

Notice how your body moves when you’re just calmly lying on your back, or on one side, with a small pillow under your head, so your spine feels like one long continuous string of pearls. With curves, of course, but no cricks. If it was a garden hose, the water would flow freely.

Now pay attention to your breath. It’s easy to feel how every breath moves your belly, how the diaphragm pushes on inner organs, so your belly pouches out, and how it flattens again when you’re breathing out. Do you also feel the movement of your chest, your ribs? When you’re relaxed, there’s not as much movement as when you’re running, but still–with every breath, your ribs lift, and they even rotate a little bit.

Even your spine moves as the lungs expand, as the diaphragm contracts!

You can feel that movement if you pay close attention. You might even feel your head move a tiny bit, just a light shift of weight.

That’s how your body moves when you’re fast asleep.

Nerves need movement, blood, and space. If they’re lying motionless, if they don’t get enough bloodflow, and if the soft tissues around them are too constricted, they get seriously cranky. You can have nerve impingement of the small tiny branches in the skin, or in a deeper layer, just between different sheets of tissue.

Normally we move around, we keep the tissues gliding on top of another, we enable bloodflow through motion.

If you sleep “right”, your breath moves a lot of your body. But if you’re somehow cramped, if your pillow is too big, or if you slide half on, half off the pillow, you might cause a crick in your neck. If this was a garden hose, the water would not flow, and movement is not subtly being transmitted from one vertebra to the other.

Irritated nerves ask for protection, so muscles start tightening around them.

Sometimes the “crick in the neck” you wake up with is nothing but that–tight muscles.

It’s easy to work out by a good massage therapist. Not so much by rubbing the belly of the muscle–that can be successful, but it’s actually more effective to aim at the layers between, to separate different structures. That opens up space for the small nerve branches, and there’s no more reason to yell for help.

I’ve had that experience myself after a few days of travel, airplanes, hotel beds. Ugh, those hotel pillows are never right! Now I’ve learned my lesson, I just fold a bath towel to the right height. I wish I had thought of that before I got a crick in my neck.

It’s a weird pain. It’s right where the shoulder meets the neck, and it is a dull ache unless I turn my head–then it becomes sharp, almost electric. Shocking. “That’s what my clients talk about,” I thought.

So I made an appointment for myofascial mobilizations, because that’s how I help my clients. The therapist had me lie facedown first, then on the side, in order to get all the tissues mobilized from different angles. It didn’t feel painful, it was the type of work I like to do myself–just on the edge of where it could become painful if there was more pressure.

It felt a little looser when she was done with me. I always tell my clients “you’ll notice results within the next two days”. The pain was less during the day, and I slept well. But waking up the next morning, it was still there. Ugh. I was disappointed. How annoying. I hate getting massages that just waste my time.

Later on, though, I had to admit the pain was better, and I could move a little more easily. But still, I thought this should have been resolved! I was sure if I was my client, it would have been fixed directly after the session.

I had the same experience my clients sometimes have. They feel better, but the annoyance of a persisting issue is bigger than the sense of relief. If there is still some pain, it doesn’t matter much that it’s lessened… there’s just this ongoing thought “It’s still there. I thought it would go away.”

It did, actually, go away. The second morning I woke up with no pain, full range of motion.

And it took me until then to remember that this is exactly what I tell my clients: It takes two days.

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