Twisted Neck Causes Pain

I’ve been in the process of moving for the past week — what a job! Right now I have stuff stored all over the place; friends garages (2 of them), a storage shed, and a few things in assorted friends homes. As for me, I’m staying at a friend’s house for the next two weeks until I can move into my apartment. Which brings me to the topic of today’s blog.

Gabriele (my generous friend) was in a great deal of pain this morning, her head felt like it was going to explode and she was sick to her stomach from the pain. When I looked at the angle of her pillows I could see immediately what was happening. Gabriele’s THREE pillows were at an angle resting up against the headboard, as a result when she would lie down (on her side) her shoulder was on the mattress but her head was at an angle pointing up toward the ceiling. This angle causes her head to actually be severely tilted to the side, putting pressure directly onto her spinal cord at the base of her brain.

Your first two cervical vertebrae are key to this problem. C1, nicknamed “Atlas,” is the base that holds the weight of your skull, and C2, nicknamed “Axis,” has a point that goes through the center of C1 and your skull is sitting on that point. It is because of the point (actually called “dens”) that we can turn our heads left and right, and back and forth. A muscle called levator scapulae, nicknamed “the shrug muscle” because it lifts your shoulders up when you shrug, originates on C1-C4 and inserts into top of your shoulder blade. It will help you if you look at the levator scapulae muscle and realize that the insertion point (shoulder blade) always moves toward the origination point (C1-C4).

While you look at the muscle, think about what happens when you are lying on your side and your head is leaning over toward your shoulder (as it was with my friend while she slept with her head at this angle). To stay with the graphic of the muscle, let’s say your are sleeping on your right side, your pillow is too thick and is forcing your head to lean toward your left shoulder. The muscle shortens and muscle memory (subject for another blog) causes it to stay tight, pulling the bones in that direction — and then you turn to your opposite side, really causing a problem.

If you have already read about repetitive strain injuries and how they cause pain to refer to areas that may be far from the spasms, you’ll be able to understand what is happening here. You need to apply direct pressure on the muscles, hold it until the muscle releases the tension, and then gently move your head in the opposite direction. Feel around for all the tight points and treat each one the same way. You can do it, it’s just a matter of finding each of the trigger points, pressing deeply enough to make a difference, and being focused – not rubbing around the entire area but staying on the trigger point.

To complete the story of Gabriele, she’s fine now, her headache is all gone and she is thrilled that she knows how to release the tension before it gets bad enough to cause a headache – plus she’s changing her pillow set-up so it won’t happen again.

Looking at your pillow and how your head/neck are positioned while you sleep could make all the difference in the world to you too!

Have a great day,



Hi, maybe you can help me. I had the stomach flu for three days, duringing which I slept on the couch. Because I was so sick, I tried not to change positions much, which tended to bring on vomiting, so I would just turn my head instead of turning my body. This brought on a deep ache in my head, which would gradually go away when I shifted my head. During the day, I would just lay on the couch in a mostly sitting up position with my legs out straight or bent, but I was so weak that I laid my head (the right side) against the couch. So for about three days, I was in this position with the right side of my head against the couch, and my neck twisted off and on at night. I am over the flu now, and I have a head ache on my right side that won’t go away, unless I take Tylenol, but then it comes right back when it wears off. I wake up with this head ache, and I go to bed with this headache. This is getting old. Do you have any advice?

Julie Donnelly

Julie Donnelly

Hi Marcia,

I apologize for the delay in this response. I don’t know why I’m only just seeing it tonight and I feel terrible that you have been in pain for a month!

Pain is a horrible thing and seriously impacts your daily living. I can understand your feeling that it’s “getting old,” and that you want answers that will work. Were you able to search through my blogs and find help with your neck problem. There is a phenomenon called “muscle memory” which explains that when a muscle is held shortened for a period of time, the body shortens the muscle and keeps it short. The muscle now believes it’s supposed to be short and quickly shortens up when you try to lengthen/stretch it.

The primary two muscles causing your pain are sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short) because it is the muscle that turns your head in the opposite direction. Since your head was turned to the right, your left SCM would have been held contracted for the entire time. When you would turn your head to the left, your left SCM needed to lengthen, but it couldn’t because it was shortened due to muscle memory.

The next muscle is the levator scapulae. This muscle originates on your Cervical 1-4 and inserts into the top of your shoulder blade. The nickname is the “shrug muscle” because it lifts your shoulders up so you can shrug. However, when it is shortened due to muscle memory it will pull your cervical vertebrae to the side and down. This causes the vertebrae to press into your spinal cord at the base of your brain and causes horrible headaches and neck stiffness.

The treatments aren’t difficult, but they are very specific. Do you have a copy of my book Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living? The treatments are taught in that book. Basically you find the spasms (there are charts to show you where they are located) and then just apply direct pressure onto the knot. In most cases the spasms are a distance from where you are feeling the pain. The analogy I use is, if you pull your hair at the end you will feel pain in your scalp. But rubbing your scalp won’t help, the only thing that works is letting go of your hair. In the same way the muscle is in spasm and is pulling on the insertion point at the bone, but the only way to stop it is to let go of the spasm.

If you search through the blogs you’ll find some of the treatments, although I don’t post the more involved self-treatments as the pictures are important in doing the treatments. You can save time and effort by getting the book by going to and then going to the shopping cart.

Wishing you well,

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