Neck strains can range from being mildly annoying to severe and may limit head movements for basic tasks, such as getting dressed or going to work. Knowing the symptoms of neck strain can help identify the problem sooner and find treatments that work.

Common Symptoms of Neck Strain

Nearly all cases of muscle strain in the neck are either mild or moderate and will eventually heal, but even these cases can be troublesome and inconvenient. Common symptoms include one or more of the following:

  • Pain localized to the neck region. Neck strains are usually felt in the back of the neck, or mostly in the neck and partially in a nearby region, such as the back of the head, upper back, and/or shoulder.
  • Achy or throbbing pain. A dull, nagging pain may persist and potentially affect sleep at night and/or concentration during the day. This ache is likely to feel deep in the muscle.
  • Sharp pain. A knife-like pain can sometimes be one of the more intense symptoms of neck strain.
  • Pain that worsens with movement. The neck might have no or dull pain at rest, but then have a flare-up of sharp pain with certain movements or activities.
  • Muscle spasm. Inflammation from the injury can trigger painful spasms in the injured muscle and possibly nearby muscles.

    See Understanding Neck Spasms

  • Stiff neck. Moving the neck in one or more directions may be difficult. Neck stiffness from a strain is due to swelling and/or muscles tightening to guard against further injury.

    See Stiff Neck Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Sometimes a neck strain can accompany another injury or condition, which may cause additional symptoms.

Chronic Neck Strain from Poor Posture

While most neck strains go away on their own within a few days, healing cannot take place if the muscle strain is regularly reinjured. This situation is particularly common when the cause of the neck strain is undiagnosed.

For example, a person could go months or years with neck pain that worsens at the end of a long work day. If the pain is from poor posture or repetitive motions that cause the neck strain, it may be wise to give the neck a chance to rest and either avoid or modify previous activities that involved long periods of poor posture.

Serious Symptoms in Addition to Neck Strain

If a neck strain is the result of a sudden or major impact, such as a car accident, additional injuries in the cervical spine may occur or become exacerbated, such as a herniated disc or spinal fracture. Symptoms that warrant a trip to the doctor for further evaluation include:

  • Pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness that radiates down into the shoulder, arm, or hand
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Visual problems or sensitivity to bright lights
  • Neck instability
  • Difficulty with finger dexterity
  • Gait disturbances such as feeling off balance
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

See What Causes Neck Pain and Dizziness?


Other troublesome symptoms could also exist. If severe neck pain or neck instability follows a major accident, medical personnel may need to immobilize the neck before transporting to the hospital.

Dr. D’Mitri Sofianos is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spine care. He is trained in minimally invasive spine surgery and practices at Memorial Spine and Chatham Orthopaedic Associates. Dr. Sofianos helped AOSpine, a global research community, to develop a software database designed to report and improve patient care.