A neck strain can be surprisingly painful—depending on the extent of the damage, a neck strain or sprain can range from simple stiffness and discomfort to extremely painful muscle spasms. The first step to feeling better is to understand why it hurts in the first place.
Neck strain video highlights
There are myriad soft tissues—muscles, tendons, and ligaments—that attach in and around your cervical spine (neck).
These muscles, tendons, and ligaments work together to support your neck and head, while at the same time allowing the neck to move in all directions. A neck strain or sprain occurs when one or a combination of these soft tissues is stretched beyond its normal range or injured.
The trapezius muscle, shown below in purple, is a large muscle that connects your shoulders and neck, and controls the large motor movements in your neck.
When this muscle becomes overly stretched or strained, it can lead to pain and stiffness in your neck, shoulder blades, and shoulders.
The image above shows the tendons in purple. These bands of fibrous tissue connect the muscles to the bones. A neck strain occurs when either tendons and/or muscles in the neck are overly stretched, torn, or otherwise injured.
Ligaments, are bands of fibrous tissue that connect the spinal bones to each other and provide stability for the neck joints. In the above image, a ligament is highlighted in red. The ligaments in your neck can become overly stretched or torn, resulting in a neck sprain—an injury that can results in pain and inflammation similar to an ankle sprain or a knee sprain.
These types of soft tissue injuries can occur due to a sudden injury, such as whiplash, which can occur in a car accident in which the head is forced suddenly forward and then backward in a whiplash motion. Neck strain can also occur as a result of poor posture over time, such as leaning forward and/or looking down for long periods of time while texting or looking at a computer screen.
Inflammation and muscle spasms may also occur around the injury as the muscles work to stabilize the tissues, and these muscle spasms can be extremely painful.
While it is common for soft tissue injuries to resolve after a few days, it is advisable to seek treatment both to ease acute pain and to help prevent future flare-ups of pain. A program of neck stretches and strengthening exercises can go a long way in preventing re-injury.