This week’s column is about stiff necks. Nothing to do with the fact that many of us slept in the sukkah last week.
Stiff necks are a real pain in the neck. (Ouch.) (Ouch for that too.) And they always strike without warning. They just sneak up behind you – often while you’re sleeping – and before you can turn around, they’re upon you! And then you can’t turn around.
I recently read that at any given point, one out of twenty people has a stiff neck. So if you’re ever in a room with a whole bunch of people, look around. If you can’t, it’s you.
But if you’ve somehow never had a stiff neck, I should explain: A couple of years ago, when I hurt my back, people asked me to describe the pain, so I told them, “Imagine you have a stiff neck, but all over your body.” So I guess if you’d ask what a stiff neck is, I’d put it the other way: “Imagine you have a spinal injury, but just on the neck part.” Because, obviously, the neck is one of the top parts of the spine, according to a recent poll.
(The tailbone was one of the bottom parts.)
The worst part of having a stiff neck is that you can’t move your head. You don’t even realize how often you move your head until you have a stiff neck. Like sometimes you’re in the back of a car and the driver says, “I can’t see out the back; can you move your head?”
“Sorry; stiff neck. Would you prefer I sit in the front?”
“No, I need someone to check if I could merge right.”
Everybody in this car has to pull their weight.
“How about you just get into the trunk?”
“I think that’s how I got my stiff neck in the first place.”
Even if you want to do something as simple as look at someone, you have to turn your whole body, and you think you’re being all casual about it, and then he says, “Do you have a stiff neck?”
And this is not to mention how stiff necks can really affect your performance at your job, especially if you’re a bus driver, an air traffic controller, an aerobics instructor, a violinist, or anyone who swims for a living. Also, sometimes you want to silently tell someone, “No,” but you can’t turn your head, so you have to do it with your entire body from the waist up. And he’s going to say, “Why are you dancing?”
I think if you’re a mother, a stiff neck isn’t as big of a deal, because you have eyes in the back of your head. My wife does. I try to sneak food from the kitchen when she’s in the dining room, and she asks, “What are you noshing on?”
“How do you know I’m noshing on anything?”
“I have eyes in the back of my head.”
“If you have eyes in the back of your head, how do you not see what I’m noshing?”
So apparently my wife has eyes in the back of her head, but they need glasses.
But as far as the rest of us, we kind of feel like knights in medieval times who wore suits of armor that, while protecting them from attack, didn’t allow them to move their heads. If you attacked them from the side, they couldn’t see you coming. This is why whenever you see a picture of two armies about to engage in battle, they’re always coming at each other head on. It doesn’t matter where their countries are located – they could be catty corner to each other, or even such that both armies are coming to the battlefield from the same direction (which makes it awkward to get there, especially if they carpool – “Can you move your head? I can’t see out the back.” “Too bad.”), they’re still going to get to the battlefield and say, “Um, can we line up facing each other? Because I feel like I can’t see you guys.”
“We can’t really see you either. And we have all the people with poorer vision in the front row!”
You’re also afraid to move your neck. Do I bend it in the direction of the pain or the direction opposite the pain? And if I try both, will it be like when I’m trying to fix a bent piece of metal, where I bend it the other way and my head comes off?
Sure, there are a lot of advice articles out there, but it’s not easy to tell which ones know what they’re talking about. You only have one neck.
For example, one article I read said (and I am not making this up), “TIP #6 – Massage. STEP 1: Grasp your neck with your thumb on one side and your fingers on the other.”
Wait. Which two sides are we talking about? Care to be more specific? Am I strangling myself here?
“STEP 2: Knead your neck by gently squeezing for 1-2 minutes.”
I didn’t put a lot of stock in that article anyway, because it was called, “9 Home Remedies for a Stiff Neck,” and #8 was to call a chiropractor.
Plus a lot of the advice these articles give seems to be contradictory. For example, a bunch of them said to, quote, “Apply heat and cold.” Won’t they cancel each other out? Can I just apply nothing?
And public opinion doesn’t help that much either. Whenever people hear that you have a stiff neck, they’re very quick to point out that you probably slept wrong. So I guess the best idea is to go back to bed and try again until you get it right. You never know.
The problem is that when you’re sleeping, you’re unconscious, so you have no idea that you’re sleeping wrong until you get up and you’re like, “Was that wrong? I was like that for six hours!”
I have no idea if I’m sleeping wrong. I could be sleeping wrong every night. No one really ever taught me how to sleep. I went to school for like twenty years, and as far as I can tell, there’s no class for that. In fact, if you fall asleep in class, the teacher gets all judgy about it. He never says, “Oh, you’re doing it wrong; let me show you.” There should be official sleeping classes. What are you paying all that dorm money for? Just so your kid can take naps during lunch?
And anyway, if you take a nap during class, it’s on your arm, and you never wake up from that with a stiff neck anyway. At worst you wake up with a dead arm and a deep red impression of your shirt button.
So I was never really taught how to sleep. I kind of just figured it out on my own. Halacha does say it’s a good idea to sleep on your side, but aside from that it’s pretty vague. It doesn’t really say anything about back alignment, or how many pillows to use, except when it comes to Tisha B’Av and you need to sleep on one less pillow because you’ve been sitting on the other one all night.
“Yeah,” you’re saying, “but you learned how to sleep as a baby. Your parents put you to bed, and that’s how they taught you.”
But number one, that’s not the way to sleep. You can’t put a baby to sleep on his side. He just topples over. You kind of have to put him on his back or his front, plus the doctors keep changing which one of those they think is better. I think the basic consensus is to keep flipping him every few minutes, like a pancake. Head over heels. Or let him fall asleep in the infant seat and try not to think about it. And what does a baby do when he has a stiff neck? They must get them. Maybe that’s why sometimes your baby is crying and you have no idea why, and he only stops when you hold him in a specific position.
So here are some actual tips, taken from articles that I have no way of verifying that they know what they’re talking about. But to be fair, you never have a way of verifying that I know what I’m talking about, so they’re just as good as anything else:
- Decrease your stress levels. Of course, it’s hard to decrease stress when you can’t say no to anything.
- Don’t wear a heavy book bag on only one shoulder. Wear one on each shoulder.
- Don’t fall asleep sitting up. Except on Friday nights.
- There are stretches you can do. But don’t try them on your baby.
- Apply cold first. If you don’t have an ice pack, you can use a bag of frozen cholent beans. Next, apply heat. If you have no heating pad, use a bag of cholent.
- Take a hot shower. Then have someone flush the toilet so it’s cold. Repeat. The stress will not help, though.
- Sleep correctly. Many articles that have a larger photography budget than this one have pictures of how your head and neck and back should be aligned when you sleep, but the pictures are always taken from behind, so you honestly have no idea whether you’re aligned properly. So when you lie down, you need someone to stand behind you with a magic marker.