What is a neck sprain or strain?

There are seven bones in the neck that are connected by ligaments, tendons and muscles.

Although a neck strain or sprain is not considered a serious injury, the pain associated with the injury can be debilitating.

Neck sprains or strains are also called cervical spine sprains or strains.

Causes of neck sprains or strains

  • Extended period in an uncomfortable position such as cradling a phone with the neck
  • Sleeping with pillow that is too high or firm
  • Trauma that affects the neck
  • Carrying a heavy object on one side of the body

Risk factors for neck sprains or strains

  • Injury
  • Repetitive strain injury
  • Surgery
  • Sleeping positions
  • Poor posture
  • Bone fracture

Symptoms of neck sprains or strains

  • Pain in the back of the neck or upper shoulder that becomes more painful as you move your head
  • Difficulty moving or rotating the head or neck
  • Headaches that feel worse in the back of the head
  • Increased irritability or fatigue
  • Decreased range of motion or stiffness in the neck
  • Tingling, numbness or weakness in the arms or hands

Diagnosis of neck sprains or strains

Your primary care doctor can diagnose a neck sprain or strain in a comprehensive physical examination.

Your doctor may ask you how the injury occurred, what your symptoms are, what makes your symptoms worse, as well as check the range of motion in your neck.

Your provider may order an x-ray to evaluate the site of the pain and rule out other, potentially more serious, conditions.

Treatments for neck strain or sprains

Neck sprains or strains will heal gradually with the appropriate treatment protocols. Your doctor may recommend wearing a soft collar to help support the head and relieve pressure on the ligaments in the neck.

Treatments for neck sprains or strains could include:

  • Medication - your doctor may prescribe pain relievers to reduce the pain and swelling in the affected area; muscle relaxants can also help ease spasms.
  • Ice - icing the area a few times a day for two to three days after the injury can reduce inflammation and discomfort.
  • Physical therapy - can help strengthen the injured area; physical therapists may incorporate massage, ultrasound and aerobic exercises.
  • Cervical neck traction - can help keep the area stable while healing.

Recovery from a neck sprain or strain

With proper treatment and rest, most patients will recover from a neck strain or sprain within four to six weeks. If the strain or sprain is severe, it can take three months or more to fully recover.

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