What are neck muscles?
Your neck muscles are part of a complex musculoskeletal system (soft tissues and bones) that connect the base of your skull to your torso. Muscles contain fibers that contract (get smaller), allowing you to perform lots of different movements. Your neck muscles help you do everything from chewing and swallowing to nodding your head. You have more than 20 neck muscles.
The muscles in your neck are skeletal muscles, meaning they’re attached to bones by tendons. They’re voluntary muscles, so you control how they move and work. Other types of muscles in the body – cardiac (in the heart) and smooth (in hollow organs like your stomach) – are involuntary, which means they work without you having to think about it.
What is the purpose of the neck muscles?
The neck muscles serve a variety of functions, including:
- Elevating your upper ribs so you can inhale.
- Helping with chewing, swallowing and speaking.
- Making certain facial expressions.
- Moving your head, neck and upper back, including your shoulder blades.
- Stabilizing and supporting your head, neck and spine.
Where are the neck muscles located?
Your neck muscles are at the front, back and sides of your neck. From the back, they begin just beneath the base of your skull and extend down near the middle of your back, around your shoulder blades. From the front, these muscles begin at your jaw and extend to your collarbone at the top of your chest.
How are the neck muscles structured?
There are three types of neck muscles: anterior (front), posterior (back) and lateral (side) muscles.
Anterior neck muscles include:
- Platysma: Thin sheet of muscle that covers part of your shoulder and upper chest, extending up the jaw. It helps with jaw and mouth movements, as well as tightening the skin in your lower face and neck.
- Sternocleidomastoid: One of the largest muscles in the neck, helping you move your head, extend your neck and control your temporomandibular joint (in the jaw). It begins just behind your ear and stretches to your collarbone.
- Subclavius: Stabilizes your collarbone when you move your shoulder and arm.
- Suprahyoids: Four muscles that move your hyoid bone (a bone at the top of your neck, just below your jawline) when you swallow and speak.
- Infrahyoids: Four muscles below your hyoid bone that move your larynx (voice box) up and down.
- Scalenes: Three muscles that move your first two ribs up and down so you can inhale air when you breathe. They also help move the head and stabilize the cervical vertebrae (bones in your neck).
Posterior neck muscles include:
- Splenius capitis and splenius cervicis: Strap-like muscles in the back of your neck that help you extend and rotate your head.
- Suboccipital muscles: Four muscles just below the occipital bone at the base of your skull. They help extend your head in different directions.
- Transversospinalis muscles: Five muscles that help you move your head forward and backward, as well as tilt it from side to side. They also help stabilize your spine and move the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions of your spine.
Lateral neck muscles include:
- Rectus capitis anterior and rectus capitis lateralis: Two muscles that control head movements from the base of your skull.
- Longus capitis and longus colli: Two muscles help you twist your head from side to side, as well as twist and tilt your cervical spine.
What are the neck muscles made of?
Like all other skeletal muscles in the body, neck muscles contain lots of tiny, elastic fibers that allow the muscles to contract. Sheaths of tough connective tissue hold the fibers together. Skeletal muscle fibers are red and white, so the muscles look striated (striped or streaked).
Conditions and Disorders
What conditions and disorders affect neck muscles?
Common conditions that affect the neck muscles include:
- Spasms: Also called muscle cramps, muscle spasms occur when a muscle contracts and can’t relax. Most spasms are short, lasting only a few seconds. But you may have a sore or stiff neck afterwards.
- Strains: A neck strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. It’s the result of overstretching or tearing the muscle fibers.
- Whiplash: If your head moves forward suddenly and then whips backward, you can injure the soft tissue in your neck. Whiplash usually involves muscles, ligaments and tendons.
How common are neck muscle conditions?
Studies estimate that about 14% of the population has some form of chronic neck pain. Approximately 45% of those cases (about 15.5 million Americans) may be due to whiplash.
Who gets neck muscle injuries?
Whiplash is typically the result of an automobile accident if you’re rear-ended. Neck injuries such as strains are common in athletes who play collision sports like football or hockey. But neck pain can happen to anyone. Turning your head suddenly, sleeping on your neck at an awkward angle, sitting at your desk with bad posture or other everyday activities can cause the occasional neck kink.
What are the symptoms of neck muscle injuries?
Neck injuries may cause:
- Headache in the back of your head.
- Muscle spasms or pain in your upper shoulder.
- Numbness in the arm or hand.
- Pain or tenderness in the front, back or side of your neck.
- Stiffness or inability to move your head in different directions.
- Swelling or bruising around your neck.
How are neck muscle injuries diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider reviews your symptoms and performs a physical exam. They may ask you to move your head, neck and shoulders in different directions to check your muscle strength and range of motion. Your provider may recommend imaging exams, such as an ultrasound or CT scan, if they think you may have muscle damage.
How are neck muscle injuries treated?
Most neck muscle injuries heal over the course of a few days or weeks with at-home treatments. Your provider may recommend:
- Heat therapy to relax muscles.
- Ice or cold compresses to reduce swelling.
- Anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants.
How can I keep my neck muscles healthy?
Keep your neck muscles strong and healthy by:
- Maintaining good posture.
- Paying attention to your body’s signals. Don’t ignore continued pain, weakness in the arms or headache/neck stiffness.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I call my doctor?
Serious neck injuries need immediate medical attention. Contact your doctor right away if you have:
- Increased irritability, fatigue or difficulty sleeping or concentrating after a neck injury.
- Intense headache that persists or gets worse.
- Numbness, tingling or weakness in your neck, head, arms or hands.
- Sudden, severe neck pain or pain that lasts several days after an injury.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
You have more than 20 neck muscles, which allow you to perform a variety of movements. Our neck muscles stabilize and support our heads and upper backs, in addition to helping us chew, make facial expressions and even breathe. Neck injuries, such as muscle strains or whiplash, can be painful but aren’t usually cause for alarm. But in rare cases, serious neck injuries need immediate medical attention.
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