Neck Sprain

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a neck sprain?

A neck sprain is a type of soft tissue injury. It occurs when a ligament in the neck stretches more than it should. Overstretching the ligament causes pain and other neck problems. It results from sudden trauma or forces on the head or neck. Whiplash is an example of a neck sprain. Severe neck sprains can actually tear the ligament either partially or completely.

Ligaments are strong bands of connective tissue. They connect bones together, hold them in the correct position, and stabilize joints. They also have a certain amount of elasticity. This allows them to stretch with joint movement and return to their normal position. Ligaments in the neck connect the cervical vertebrae to each other.

Neck injuries can be serious and even life threatening. Complications can include critical conditions, such a paralysis. Although neck sprains are unlikely to be life threatening, it is difficult to gauge the seriousness of neck injury without a medical evaluation. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, has been in an accident with a neck injury.

What are the signs and symptoms of a sprained neck?

Pain is the main symptom of a neck sprain. The pain worsens with movement and can start right after an injury or take several days to develop. The amount of pain will depend on the severity of the sprain. Minor neck sprains tend to produce mild pain. Sprains that tear the ligament can result in intense pain. Other signs of sprained neck or neck sprain symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating

  • Headache at the back of the head

  • Muscle spasms in the neck or shoulders

  • Neck stiffness

  • Numbness or tingling in the upper extremities

  • Sore throat

  • Weakness in the neck or shoulders

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, neck injuries can be serious. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms including:

  • Abnormal appearance of the neck

  • Change in consciousness or alertness, such as fainting or passing out

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

  • Paralysis in any area of the body

  • Severe headache

Even if you do not have these serious symptoms, always see a doctor after a neck injury. You need an accurate diagnosis to be sure your neck is stable and your spinal cord is not injured. Seeking medical care early offers the best chance of successfully recovering from a neck sprain.

What causes a neck sprain?

A neck sprain is typically the result of severe mechanical force applied to the body, usually not from a direct neck blow. The sudden acceleration that occurs during a high-speed rear-end motor vehicle collision is a good example. The impact causes rapid movement of the neck in extreme directions. The force of this movement stretches the ligaments beyond their normal capacity. Neck sprain causes can include falls, sports injuries, physical assault, and motor vehicle accidents, especially rear-end accidents. Neck sprain can even happen after amusement park rides that cause the head to jerk or bounce.

What are the risk factors for a neck sprain?

A number of factors increase the risk of experiencing a neck sprain, including:

  • Failing to wear a seat belt when driving or riding in a motor vehicle

  • Playing contact sports

  • Positioning the car head restraint improperly

Reducing your risk of neck sprain

Smart habits are the best way to lower your risk of spraining your neck, including:

  • Learning how to correctly position a car head restraint to protect your head and neck. It should be even with the top of your head if possible. If not, adjust it to the highest position. It is fine if the lowest setting is above the top of your head. Visit your local fire station if you need help adjusting your head rest.

  • Using a seat belt every time you drive or ride in a car or motor vehicle

  • Wearing protective equipment with the right fit when participating in contact sports

How is a neck sprain treated?

Neck sprain treatment is similar to treating any other sprain in the body. The goals are to reduce pain and other symptoms, and allow the ligaments to heal. This usually involves over-the-counter pain relievers, rest, and ice. A soft neck collar can help support the head, which relieves pressure on the ligaments while they heal.

Depending on the severity of the injury, neck sprain treatment may also involve:

  • Massage therapy to help relieve symptoms and speed healing

  • Muscle relaxant medicines

  • Neck sprain exercises to relieve stiffness and restore neck movement

  • Physical therapy to help regain full range of motion and function

For mild to moderate neck sprains, the ligaments will gradually heal over time. This typically takes 4 to 6 weeks. Severe neck sprains can take significantly longer to heal and fully recover.

What are the potential complications of a sprained neck?

Most people successfully recover from a neck sprain without any chronic problems. However, complications can develop. This includes headaches, persistent neck pain, and chronic weakness, stiffness, or decreased range of motion in the neck. Your commitment to following your treatment and recovery plan is important in preventing these complications. Working with a physical therapist can help you learn self-care strategies to prevent disability and other chronic problems. Lasting symptoms may require treatment by a spine specialist.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 26
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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