People who are involved in motor vehicle crashes or who take hard falls in a contact sport or around the house may get a real “pain in the neck.” This pain can result from a ligament sprain or muscle strain.
The seven bones of the spinal column in your neck are called cervical vertebrae. They are connected to each other by ligaments, which are strong bands of tissue, like thick rubber bands.
A sprain is a stretch or tear in the ligament resulting from a sudden movement that causes the neck to extend to an extreme position. For example, in the rapid deceleration of a car crash, your head and neck can stretch far forward before stopping.
- Pain, especially in the back of the neck, that worsens with movement
- Pain that often peaks a day or so after the injury, instead of immediately
- Possible muscle spasms and pain in the upper regions of the shoulders
- Headache in the rear of the head
- Sore throat
- Increased irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and difficulty concentrating
- Numbness in the arm or hand
- Stiffness or decrease in range of motion (side to side, up and down, circular)
- Tingling or weakness in the arms
During the physical exam, your doctor will ask you how the injury occurred, measure range of motion and check for any point tenderness. Your orthopaedist may request X-ray studies to look closely at the bones in your neck. This evaluation helps eliminate or identify other sources of neck pain, such as spinal fractures, dislocations, arthritis and other serious conditions.
All sprains or strains, no matter where they are located in the body, receive basically the same type of treatment. Usually, neck sprains, like other sprains, will gradually heal, given time and appropriate treatment. You may have to wear a soft cervical collar to help support the head and relieve pressure on the neck so the ligaments have time to heal.
Analgesics, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help reduce the pain and any swelling. Muscle relaxants can help ease spasms. You can apply an ice pack for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, several times a day for the first two or three days after the injury. This will help reduce inflammation and discomfort. Although heat, particularly moist heat, can help loosen cramped muscles, it should not be applied too quickly.
Other treatment options include:
- Massaging the tender area
- Cervical traction
- Aerobic and isometric exercise
Most symptoms will resolve in four to six weeks. A severe injury, such as might be sustained in a motor vehicle accident, may take longer to heal completely.
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