The Mystery of Morning Neck Pain

My body’s preferred way to remind me that I’m aging is through pain. In recent years, my level of consequence-free drinking has plummeted from “omg liMitLe$s!!” to 1.5 standard glasses of Chardonnay. In yoga, I am often forced not to enter the “fullest expression of the pose” and instead to just kind of lie there.

And then there is The Tweak. About once a month—not at any certain time of the month, but just roughly 12 times a year—I will wake up feeling like someone french braided my neck muscles overnight. The pain burns from the base of my skull, down one side of my neck or the other, and onto the adjacent shoulder blade. The Tweak makes it impossible to rotate my head fully to one side or the other for the day. It’s not an athletic injury—I know no sport. It’s also not related to any underlying medical conditions that I know of, though when I talked with experts for this article, they asked me “if I am stressed,” which I took to be a rhetorical question.

Generally, The Tweak leads me to spend the day hunched over in my chair, kneading at my neck with fingers and marker caps. But it usually goes away by the next morning. So I felt lucky when I connected with a dentist named Michael, who told me he has also experienced mysterious neck pain. (He asked me not to use his last name because he worried it could affect the terms of his life-insurance policy.) Except his situation was much, much worse.

One night back when Michael was in high school, he awoke with what felt like an electric shock zapping the left side of his neck. A neck muscle had tightened so much that his head was drawn down to his shoulder. The slightest movement—even talking—was excruciating. He was able to move his hand enough to reach his TV remote, which he used to turn on the set and dial the volume all the way up. The blaring TV woke up and summoned his parents, who called an ambulance. The diagnosis was torticollis, an ailment in which the neck muscle spontaneously contracts. It took muscle relaxers for Michael’s neck to untwist.

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