Disease, Condition & InjuryHead & neck conditionsNeck

Neck sprain

Neck sprain – Definition

A neck sprain is stretching and/or tearing of the soft tissues of the neck. This including muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue. They connect bones to each other. Mild sprains may involve only stretching of the ligaments. More severe sprains would involve partial tears.

Neck sprain – Causes

A neck sprain results from a sudden movement that causes the neck to extend or flex too far.

Causes include:

  • Car accidents (rapid deceleration causes the head and neck to snap forward and then backward, known as whiplash)
  • A blow to the head
  • Strain of the upper back or shoulder

Neck sprain – Risk Factors

Risk factors for a neck sprain include:

  • Playing contact sports
  • Reckless driving
  • Weak neck muscles and ligaments
  • Not wearing a seat/shoulder belt in the car

Neck sprain – Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Neck pain, especially in the back of the neck, that gets worse with movement
  • Shoulder pain and muscle spasms
  • Tingling sensations or weakness in the arms
  • Headache, especially in the back of the head
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Sore throat
  • Stiffness and difficulty moving the head:
    • Side to side
    • Up and down
    • In a circular motion

Neck sprain – Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and how you injured your neck. The doctor will also examine your neck. This is done to assess its stability and the severity of the injury. Diagnosis depends on ruling out other sources of neck pain. They can include dislocations, spinal fractures, arthritis, and cervical disc disease.

Tests may include:

  • X-rays — a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially bones, to make sure that no bones are broken.
  • MRI scan — a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body, to see if a ligament has torn completely or if there is any damage to cervical discs (less common)
  • CT scan — a test that uses x-rays to take multiple cross-sectional views of the inside of the body

Neck sprain – Treatment

Treatment may include:

Cervical Collar

Wearing this soft neck brace supports the head. It takes pressure off the neck. These are worn only as long as recommended by your doctor. It is usually only a few days. Long term use can weaken neck muscles and make recovery last longer.


Your doctor may recommend:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicine (eg, ibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen, aspirin)
  • Topical pain medicines (eg, cream, patches) that are applied to the skin
  • Prescription muscle relaxants to ease muscle spasms

Ice and Heat

  • Apply ice or a cold pack to the neck for 15-20 minutes, four times a day for 2-3 days. This helps reduce pain and swelling. Wrap the ice or cold pack in a towel. Do not apply the ice directly to your skin.
  • Moist heat helps loosen tight or injured muscles. Only apply a heat pack after any swelling has gone away.


  • Massage helps increase circulation and reduce tension.
  • Cervical traction may be used intermittently. It can decrease pain and reduce muscle spasm. It should be used as directed by a physical therapist.
  • Trigger point and botulinum toxin injections may also be used.

For Conditions Associated with Cervical Strain

  • Cervical facet injections
  • Radiofrequency neurotomy
  • Epidural steroid injections

Neck sprain – Prevention

To reduce your risk of neck sprain:

  • Drive carefully to avoid car accidents; wear your seat/shoulder belt.
  • Avoid contact sports.
  • Do exercises that strengthen the neck muscles.

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