Neck strains and sprains can range from mild discomfort to severe neck pain that hinders routine activities, like driving or getting dressed. Here’s how these soft tissue injuries can happen, and how to get relief.
Soft tissue injuries in the neck
There are numerous soft tissues that attach to the neck, including muscles, tendons, and ligaments. These soft tissues all work in tandem to support your neck and head. At the same time, they also enable movement in your neck. A neck strain or sprain occurs when one or more of these soft tissues is stretched beyond its normal range (or is injured in another way).
While the terms strain and sprain are commonly used interchangeably, they have different meanings:
- Neck strain is an injury to a neck muscle or tendon (fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone)
- Neck sprain is an injury to a neck ligament (fibrous tissue that connects 2 bones)
Neck strains and sprains can vary in severity depending on the extent of the injury. For example, a minor neck strain may only have a few muscle fibers that are torn. A more severe neck strain involves more tears in the muscle fibers and takes longer to heal.1
Neck strain symptoms
Neck strains and sprains can have similar symptoms. Some of the more common symptoms include:
- Pain localized to the neck region
- Pain that ranges from achy or throbby to sharp or intense
- Stiff neck
- Neck muscle spasm
- Pain that worsens with movement
Neck strain may also involve pain in nearby areas, such as the head, shoulder, or upper back.
Read more about Neck Strain Symptoms
Neck strain causes
Common ways for neck strains to occur include:
- Poor posture or holding the neck at an awkward angle
- Lifting something that is too heavy
- Whiplash, such as during a car collision
- Repetitive neck motion motions
- Performing a new or unfamiliar activity
Two of the more common neck muscles to have pain include the upper trapezius and the levator scapulae. It can also be very difficult to determine when the pain is arising from these muscles, or if the pain is referred from an underlying spinal pathology.
Read more about Neck Strain: Causes and Remedies
Neck strain treatments
Common first-aid treatment options for neck strain include:
- Rest and/or activity modification
- Over-the-counter pain medication (such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen)
- Cold therapy
- Heat therapy
After the initial flare-up of pain, an exercise program of neck stretches and strengthening may help prevent future injuries. To reduce the risk of further injury, speak with your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Read more about Neck Strain Treatments and Prevention
When to see the doctor
Neck strains and sprains typically start to feel better within a few days without needing to visit the doctor. For neck pain that persists or recurs despite self-care, or is associated with other symptoms such as weakness or severe arm pain, seek medical attention to rule out other more serious pathologies.