Our necks have the particularly important job of carrying our heads all day, every day. This is no small task, as the average human head weighs about 11 pounds. But too often, our day-to-day activities can put excess pressure on our necks. The result is a sprain or a strain.
Neck pain is incredibly common in the United States, with an estimated 1 in three people affected each year. In most cases, neck sprains or strains are minor injuries that heal on their own relatively quickly. However, some injuries are much more severe and may need medical intervention.
Common Causes of Neck Sprains and Strains
Neck pain can be caused by a range of activities, and each activity can have a varying effect on the neck and spine. The most common cause of neck pain is muscle tension – usually caused by a person putting excess weight on their neck throughout the day. A great example of this is heavy backpacks, which tend to cause neck strain in young people.
Another common cause of neck pain is “text neck,” or the act of sitting or standing with your head angled downward for a long time. Putting your head at this angle adds excess pressure on the neck and spine; while the human head weighs around 11 pounds, a simple angle of 15 degrees can put 27 pounds of pressure on your neck! The rise of smartphones has contributed to an increase in neck strain across the country.
Other common causes of neck sprains and strains include:
- Poor posture
- Working at a desk for too long in one position
- Whiplash (usually following a car accident)
- Sports injuries
These situations generally lead to acute pain that will heal quickly. But sometimes, neck pain can be a symptom of something greater, such as the following:
- Heart attack
- A herniated disk
- Cancer of the spine
Symptoms to Watch For
The first and most obvious symptom of a neck sprain or strain is pain or discomfort in your neck. There are two basic types of pain: axial pain, which is a stiffness in the neck and shoulders; and radicular pain, which “radiates” along the nerves (e.g., down one arm or along the spine).
Some of the most common symptoms of a neck sprain or strain include:
- Headaches (particularly in the back of the head)
- Muscle spasms
- Stiffness or pain that increases with movement
- Ringing in the ears
These symptoms usually clear up on their own with rest and at-home remedies. However, you must see a doctor if your neck pain lasts a week or more – or if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- Severe pain without cause
- Paralysis of any extremities
- Pain immediately following an injury or accident
- Unexplained weight loss
Diagnosing a Neck Sprain or Strain
When you visit a doctor for neck pain, he or she will want to give you an examination. Your healthcare provider will ask about the injury and your daily habits, and then examine the range of motion in your neck while checking for signs of tenderness.
If it appears that your pain is acute and typical, the doctor will probably suggest some over-the-counter remedies and send you home. But if your pain appears to be symptomatic of something greater, he or she may suggest an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI. This will allow your doctor to get a clearer picture of your muscles, ligaments, and bones to rule out injuries like dislocation or arthritis.
Finally, your doctor will classify your neck strain into one of three categories:
- Grade I: A mild strain
- Grade II: A moderate strain with some torn muscle fibers
- Grade III: A severe strain with a completely torn muscle
Grade I or II strains are most common, and usually treated at home with pain relievers, massages, and heating pads. If you experience a grade III injury, it’s more often referred to as a cervical spine injury rather than a neck injury.
You can typically treat acute neck sprains or strains at home with rest and common pain reliving tools. These include, hot or cold packs, massaging the affected area, and over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Most neck pain will go away in a few days with these simple interventions.
For individuals with more severe neck pain, doctors may prescribe some additional tools to help heal the neck. For example, someone suffering a sprain after a car accident may need to wear a soft collar around the neck to support the head while they heal from whiplash. Other treatments for severe neck pain include ultrasound therapy and physical therapy (especially isometric exercises).
Hospitalization for Neck Sprains or Strains
If your neck sprain or strain seems to worsen after at-home treatment, it is time to visit the hospital. Chronic pain in your neck can be indicative of a much greater problem, so it is important to get looked at by a professional as soon as possible. If you notice numbness or tingling in your extremities or muscle weakness in the arms and legs, do not hesitate to see a doctor.
Additionally, it is vital that you go to the hospital if your neck pain is accompanied by a high fever. Neck strain with a fever is a sign of meningitis – a dangerous infection of the membrane around your spinal cord and brain – and it needs to be treated immediately.
Long-Term Effects of Neck Sprains or Strains
If you experience a severe neck sprain or strain, you may also experience some long-term effects. These can be minor, such and regular stiffness or occasional tinnitus, but they can also include:
- Jaw pain
- Chronic numbness
- Chronic headaches
- Blurry vision
- Memory problems
- Sleep problems
You are more likely to experience these ongoing effects after a traumatic injury (such as a sports injury or car accident). In these cases, there is a change that the individual can seek out compensation for their pain.