Key Points about Neck Sprains and Strains

  • A neck strain is an injury to a neck muscle or tendon, while a neck sprain is an injury to a ligament.
  • Neck strains are classified from Grade I (mild) to Grade III (severe).
  • Neck sprains or strains are caused by a variety of factors such as poor posture, lifting heavy objects, falling, worn joints, nerve compression, and injuries.
  • The most common symptom of a neck sprain or strain is pain that worsens with movement.
  • Your primary care physician, internist, or orthopedic doctor can diagnose and treat neck sprains or strains.
  • Most neck strain or sprains heal on their own within a few days. During the healing process, pain may vary from mild to severe. If the pain intensifies or does not subside within a few days, schedule an appointment with your doctor.


A neck strain is an injury to the muscle or tendon in the neck that generally occurs when the neck muscle or tendon stretches too far and tears.

A neck sprain is an injury to the ligaments in the neck.

Symptoms of a neck sprain or strain are similar and can vary based on the size of the tear and location.

A neck strain can be classified from Grade I - Grade III.

  • Grade I is a mild strain with partial tearing. Pain is typically mild.
  • Grade II is a moderate neck strain where more muscle fibers are torn. You could experience some muscle weakness as well as mild to moderate pain.
  • Grade III is the most severe type of neck strain. The muscle has completely torn in a Grade III tear. Pain is severe.

Your doctor will generally use the same protocol to treat sprains and strains.

Neck sprains and strains causes

Generally, neck strains or sprains are caused by an injury to the neck. Injuries to the neck can occur from a car accident, a direct blow that causes your head to be flung backward or forward or from when a force lands on the top of the head.

Other causes of neck sprains or strains include:

  • Poor posture
  • Lifting a heavy object
  • Falling
  • Performing a new activity
  • Repetitive motions or activities that require repetitive motions
  • Diseases such

Neck sprains and strains symptoms

The most common sign of a neck sprain or strain is a pain in combination with a decreased range of motion.

Other symptoms of neck sprains or strains include:

  • Headache
  • Muscle tightness or spasms
  • Inability to perform daily activities
  • Weakness, numbness or tingling potentially associated with nerve irritation or damage
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Problems chewing, swallowing or breathing

Neck sprains and strains complications

If a Grade II or III neck strain is left untreated, you could experience:

  • Chronic pain
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Loss of cervical ROM
  • Disability

Neck sprains and strains risk factors

There are a variety of factors that can increase your likelihood of developing a neck sprain or strain, including:

  • Performing activities that require repetitive movements
  • Having surgery on the neck
  • Sleeping in an awkward position
  • Maintaining a poor sitting or standing posture
  • Suffering a bone fracture in the neck

Neck sprains and strains prevention

Although all neck sprains and strains cannot be prevented, you can prevent some cases by following these guidelines:

  • Practice using good posture when standing and sitting.
  • Take breaks if you are traveling long distances or sitting in the same position for an extended period.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Avoid carrying heavy objects or bags on your shoulders.

Neck sprains and strains diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose a neck strain or neck sprain. During a clinic visit, your doctor will perform a physical exam, take a full medical history and order diagnostic testing.

Physical exam

Your doctor will evaluate your range of motion, examine your neck for abnormalities, and, when necessary, perform a Spurling's test to see if symptoms associated with nerve compression can be reproduced.

In rare cases, your doctor will order an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan to confirm your diagnosis.

Neck sprains and strains treatment

Your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for your case.

If the injury is a Grade I or Grade II neck strain, your doctor will typically start you with conservative treatments such as:

  • Rest
  • Local heat
  • Medications such as ibuprofen or Aleve

If over-the-counter medications are not adequately treating your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe more potent pain relievers or corticosteroids.

In more severe cases, you may need physical therapy or cervical neck traction. Physical therapy will help strengthen the injured area. Your physical therapist may use massage, ultrasound, or weightlifting exercises. Cervical neck traction will help stabilize the neck during healing.

When to seek care

Most cases of neck sprain or strain heal on their own with in-home self-care. If your symptoms such as constant neck pain, persistent neck spasms, and inability to perform daily activities that do not go away within a few days or if they intensify, call your doctor to schedule an appointment.

If you experience any of these symptoms, go to the emergency room right away:

  • Numbness or tingling in your upper extremities
  • Weakness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Headache associated with dizziness, nausea or vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing

Next Steps

Symptoms of neck sprains or strains are similar to more severe neck issues. Patients are strongly encouraged to seek a diagnosis and treatment plan from their doctor.

Once diagnosed, your doctor will develop a treatment plan customized for your case. Carefully follow your doctor's instructions and call if your symptoms change or intensify.

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