A neck sprain is a stretched ligament or muscle in the neck. A neck sprain may occur without any obvious injury but sometimes it may be caused by a sudden impact with an object. An impact may force the neck to quickly extend beyond its normal range, and then snap back forcefully.
This is commonly called a whiplash injury. Rear-end car accidents, head jerking during amusement park rides, or being kicked are the most common forms of impact that may cause a neck sprain.
Causes of Neck Strain
The anatomy of the cervical spine is a marvelous construct that houses and protects the delicate spinal cord, provides support for the head, and allows for a high degree of mobility and range of motion.
But the same engineering that allows this area of the spine to be so flexible also leaves it vulnerable to injury.
Triggers for the onset of neck muscle strain can be traced to several common activities that strain the neck anatomy, such as:
- Too much time in an awkward position, such as hunched over a steering wheel while driving, hunched forward to view a computer monitor, or cradling a phone in the crook of the neck
- Sleeping in a position that strains the neck, such as with a pillow that is too high or too firm
- Carrying a heavy suitcase or other object on one side of the body
- Any form of trauma that impacts the neck, such as from whiplash in a car accident, or from a fall in which one lands on the top of the head
What symptoms will I have with a neck sprain?
You will have neck pain that worsens with movement. Sometimes this pain will not appear until a full day or two after the event that caused it.
You will most likely have neck stiffness that hinders your ability to move your neck. The back of your head might hurt.
You may also have pain in the shoulders or upper back. Other symptoms that may happen with a neck sprain include:
- Ringing in the ears
- Patchy numbness in the hands or arms
If you notice these symptoms after a whiplash-type incident, see a doctor for an evaluation to rule out a more serious problem, such as damage to the spinal cord.
Arm or leg weakness, difficulty walking, and an inability to control the bladder or bowels are signs of spinal cord injury. If you have immediate neck pain after the incident, go to an emergency room.
How is a neck sprain diagnosed?
A physical examination will review your posture, ability to move, and the position of your head and chin. The doctor will inspect the blood vessels in your neck and may listen to them with a stethoscope. He or she also may check:
- The range of motion of your neck
- The muscle strength in your arms
- Your reflexes
- Whether or not you can detect sensations
Imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used, but most people with suspected neck sprain do not need these tests.
An MRI is a painless, noninvasive test that produces very clear pictures, or images, of the human body without the use of X-rays. MRI uses a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer to produce these images.
A CT scan is an X-ray procedure that combines many X-ray images with the help of a computer to create cross-sectional views of the body.
How is neck sprain treated?
Pain, inflammation, and tension may be treated by:
- Analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications
- Ice for the first 24 hours followed by heat applied to the neck through a moist towel
- Muscle relaxants
- Gentle movement of the neck is encouraged. Range of motion exercises may be prescribed by a physical therapist.
You may want to try sleeping with a rolled up towel under your neck for relief.
What can I expect from treatment?
Your head and neck pain should get better within a couple of weeks. If not, local anesthetic injections may be tried. Full recovery may take as long as 3 months.
If you are still having symptoms after this time further evaluation by a spine specialist is appropriate.
When to See a Doctor for Neck Strain
For more severe pain and stiffness, if the symptoms last for more than a day or two, or if the pain is accompanied by arm pain, numbness or tingling, a visit to a health professional, such as a chiropractor or primary care physician, is generally advisable.
Also if the symptoms started after any kind of trauma or accident it is a good idea to get a full examination from a health professional to diagnose or rule out any serious problems.
For most episodes of neck pain, self-care and avoiding any additional strain to the neck will usually suffice to manage the symptoms until the strain is healed.