Depending on the extent of the damage, symptoms of a neck strain or sprain can range from mild discomfort to painful muscle spasms.
Our video walk-through can help you visualize how soft tissue injuries lead to neck strain:
There are numerous soft tissues (including muscles, tendons, and ligaments) that attach in and around your cervical spine (neck).
These muscles, tendons, and ligaments 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).
Watch: Cervical Spine Anatomy Video
Muscle strain examples
The trapezius muscle (pictured below in purple) is a large muscle that connects your shoulders and neck. Its function is to control the large motor movements in your neck.
When your trapezius muscle is stretched beyond its normal capacity, it can lead to pain and stiffness in your neck, shoulder blades, and shoulders.
The image above shows tendons in your neck (pictured in purple). These bands of fibrous tissue connect your muscles to your bones. A neck strain occurs when the tendons and/or muscles in your neck are overly-stretched, torn, or otherwise injured.
Ligaments (pictured above in red) are bands of fibrous tissue that connect your spinal bones and provide stability for your neck joints.
If the ligaments in your neck are overly-stretched or torn, a neck sprain can result. This injury produces pain and inflammation similar to an ankle sprain.
Common injuries that lead to neck strain
Damage to your soft tissues often results from a sudden injury, such as whiplash injury. Whiplash can occur as a result of a car accident, in which your head is forced suddenly forward and then backward.
Neck strain can also result from poor posture over time. For example, leaning forward and/or looking down for long periods while texting or looking at a computer screen can take its toll on your neck (a phenomenon know as text neck).
Inflammation and muscle spasms may also occur around the injury as your muscles work to stabilize your soft 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 a good idea to seek treatment both to ease acute pain and to help prevent future flare-ups of pain.
Common first-aid treatment options include:
Additionally, after the initial flare-up of pain a program of neck stretches and strengthening exercises can help prevent future injuries.
Make sure to speak with your doctor before starting an exercise program, as the wrong kinds of exercises can actually make your necks strain worse.