A neck sprain is stretching or tearing of the ligaments of the neck. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that cross joints and connect bones to each other. They help stabilize joints, including the neck.
Ligaments normally stretch as the joints move. A sprain is caused by a force that makes a ligament stretch farther than it should. The force is usually the result of an accident or trauma. Some forces can cause tears in the ligament tissue.
Factors that may increase your chance of getting a neck sprain include:
- Being in a car accident
- Assaults with a blow to the head
- Sporting events that include full contact at high velocity
- Hard fall
- Occupations that put you at risk for severe falls or car accidents
Neck sprain may cause:
- Neck pain that gets worse with movement, especially in the back of the neck
- Shoulder pain and muscle spasms
- Tingling sensations or weakness in the arms
- Headache, especially in the back of the head
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Stiffness and difficulty moving the head in one or more direction
The doctor will ask about your symptoms, medical history, and how you injured your neck. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will check the stability of your neck and look for any nerve damage.
Images of bones and soft tissue may be needed to look for other potential injuries such as dislocated spinal discs or fractures. The doctor may also need to rule out other causes of neck pain such as arthritis or disc disease. Imaging tests may include:
Neck sprains are graded according to the amount of injury:
- Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of ligaments.
- Grade 2—Partial tearing of ligaments.
- Grade 3—Complete tearing of ligaments.
Your neck will need time to heal but strict rest is rarely necessary. For most, you should continue to move your neck as long as it does not increase pain. Go about your normal activities as much as you can tolerate.
Ice may help decrease swelling and pain in the first few days after the injury. Do not apply the ice directly to your skin to avoid injuring your skin.
After a couple of days heat may help loosen tight or injured muscles. Wait for swelling to go away before using heat therapy.
Medication can help to relieve discomfort and swelling. Medications may include:
- Over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen
- Topical pain medication—creams or patches that are applied to the skin
- Prescription pain relievers
- Muscle relaxants
Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
Therapy may be needed for severe sprains. Some therapeutic methods include:
- Cervical traction—a special technique to stretch the neck and reduce muscle spasm
- Physical therapy—restores flexibility, range of motion , and strength in your neck
Neck sprain is often the cause of an accident. To help reduce your chance of a neck sprain:
- Drive carefully to avoid car accidents.
- Wear your seat/shoulder belt.
- Wear proper equipment and use proper technique when playing sports.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 09/2013 -
- Update Date: 09/30/2013 -