We’ve all woken up with a “crick” in our neck. It’s not unusual to have a day—or even several days—when we can barely move our heads. These are common characteristics of a neck strain.
See: How Poor Posture Causes Neck Pain
But what if neck pain isn’t the result of a simple strain or sprain that usually heals on its own? The cervical spine is prone to several problems that can result in neck pain.
This blog post will discuss two main differences in neck strain vs. cervical spine disorder pain, so you can get the diagnosis and treatment you need.
Pain for days vs. pain for months
A strain is when a muscle or tendon is stretched or torn; it’s a sprain is when that happens to a ligament. However, this distinction may be overlooked for convenience when referring to neck strain.
Neck strains are often caused by repetitive or overuse actions, such as “sleeping wrong” or prolonged poor posture like text neck from looking at your smartphone. They can also be caused suddenly from a neck injury like a fall or whiplash.
The pain of a neck strain can be dull or severe, and can be treated with over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen, as well as heat therapy, ice therapy, and/or topical pain relievers.
The pain from a neck strain usually resolves within a few days or weeks.
On the other hand, the pain that originates from cervical spine disorders—like a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, or osteoarthritis—lasts much longer. The pain may also come and go, gradually getting worse over time.
If your neck pain lasts for more than a month without improving or it comes and goes, that’s a good indication that something more than a neck strain may be the problem.
Local vs. radiating pain
You can sometimes tell the difference between a neck strain and cervical spine disorder by where the pain is located.
Neck strain pain is located pretty much on the site of the damaged soft tissues. Occasionally the pain will be felt further up the neck or down to the top of the shoulders as neighboring soft tissues are also affected. But for the most part, neck strain pain stays local.
Pain from a cervical spine problem, however, can radiate into the shoulder, down the arm, and even into the hand. That’s because spinal problems often affect the nerve root, causing symptoms that can be experienced anywhere down the length of the nerve. This is called radiculopathy.
The nerve pain can feel burning or searing, like an electric shock. Other symptoms that could be felt anywhere down the arm or hand include tingling, numbness, and/or weakness. Radiculopathy is typically only felt on one side of the body.
Neck grinding or cracking may also be a sign of spinal injury, particularly when it’s repetitive, accompanied by pain, or starts following an accident or surgery.
If you have neck pain that has persisted for several weeks or is accompanied by radiating pain down the shoulders and arms, see your doctor so you can be properly diagnosed and treated.