Neck Sprain or Strain

A sudden force that causes turning or bending of the neck can cause sprain or strain. An example would be the force from a car accident. This can stretch or tear muscles called a strain. It can also stretch or tear ligaments called a sprain. Either of these can cause neck pain. Sometimes neck pain occurs after a simple awkward movement. In either case, muscle spasm is commonly present and contributes to the pain. 

Unless you had a forceful physical injury (for example, a car accident or fall), X-rays are often not ordered for the initial evaluation of neck pain. If pain continues and does not respond to medical treatment, X-rays and other tests may be done later.

Home care

  • You may feel more soreness and spasm the first few days after the injury. Rest until symptoms start to improve.

  • When lying down, use a comfortable pillow or a rolled towel that supports the head and keeps the spine in a neutral position. The position of the head should not be tilted forward or backward.

  • Apply an ice pack over the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes every 3 to 6 hours. Do this for the first 24 to 48 hours. You can make an ice pack by filling a plastic bag that seals at the top with ice cubes and then wrapping it with a thin towel. After 48 hours, apply heat (warm shower or warm bath) for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day, or alternate ice and heat.

  • You may use over-the-counter pain medicine to control pain, unless another pain medicine was prescribed. If you have chronic liver or kidney disease or ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines.

  • If a soft cervical collar was prescribed, only ear it for periods of increased pain. It should not be worn for more than 3 hours a day, or for longer than 1 to 2 weeks.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as directed. Physical therapy may be needed.

Sometimes fractures don’t show up on the first X-ray. Bruises and sprains can sometimes hurt as much as a fracture. These injuries can take time to heal completely. If your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse, talk with your healthcare provider. You may need a repeat X-ray or other tests. If X-rays were taken, you will be told of any new findings that may affect your care.

Call 911

Call 911 if you have:

  • Neck swelling, difficulty or painful swallowing

  • Trouble breathing

  • Chest pain

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Pain becomes worse or spreads into your arms or legs

  • Weakness or numbness in one or both arms or legs

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