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 Neck Strain: Causes and Remedies

Neck pain from a strain may be caused by repetitive poor posture. 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.

See Chronic Neck Pain: What Condition Is Causing My 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.

See Types of Neck Pain

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.

Watch: Text Neck Treatment Video

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.

See Treatment for a Stiff Neck

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.

See Cervical Degenerative Disc Disease

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.

See Cervical Spine Anatomy

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.

See Radiculopathy, Radiculitis and Radicular Pain

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.

See What Is Cervical Radiculopathy?

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.

See Causes of Neck Cracking and Grinding Sounds

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.

See Diagnosing Neck Pain

Learn more:

Neck Exercises for Neck Pain

Little-Known Causes of Neck Pain