Definition

A neck sprain is stretching or tearing of a muscle or ligament in the neck. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that cross joints and link bones to each other.

Causes

A neck sprain happens when a force makes a muscle or ligament stretch more than it should.

Cervical Spine (Neck)
Cervical Spine

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Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:

  • Being in a motor vehicle accident
  • A blow to the head, such as from contact sports
  • A hard fall

Symptoms

Problems may be:

  • Neck pain and stiffness that gets worse with movement, especially in the back of the neck
  • Shoulder and upper back pain and muscle spasms
  • Headache, especially in the back of the head
  • Lightheadedness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Tingling or weakness in the hands or arms
  • Problems sleeping

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will also be asked how your neck was hurt. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on your neck. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.

Pictures may be needed of the neck. This can be done with:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the severity of the sprain and the muscle or ligament involved. Options are:

  • Supportive care, such as ice packs and limiting activities
  • Medicines to ease pain and swelling, such as:
    • Over the counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen
    • Topical pain medicine, such as creams, gels, or patches that are put on the skin
    • Prescription pain relievers
    • Muscle relaxants
  • Therapy to help with strength and range of motion

Prevention

Most neck sprains happen due to accidents. Healthy muscles may help prevent injury. This may be done through exercise.

RESOURCES:

American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
http://www.sportsmed.org

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
http://www.orthoinfo.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Physiotherapy Association
http://www.physiotherapy.ca

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Derry S, Moore RA, et al. Topical NSAIDS for acute musculoskeletal pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(6):CD007402.

Neck sprain. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00410. Accessed October 8, 2020.

Posttraumatic headache. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/posttraumatic-headache. Accessed October 8, 2020.

Riechers RG 2nd, Walker MF, et al. Post-traumatic headaches. Handb Clin Neurol. 2015;128:567-578.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT, GCS  Last Updated: 10/8/2020