The seven cervical vertebrae are connected to each other by ligaments. A sprain occurs when these ligaments are stretched or torn beyond their normal range of motion. This may happen during sudden movements that causes the neck to extend, then snap back, with extreme force. Common symptoms of a neck sprain include:
- Pain in the back of the neck that increases with movement
- Pain on the sides of the neck
- Delayed onset neck pain that shows up 24 to 48 hours after a neck injury
- Muscle spasms or pain in the upper regions of the shouldersback and shoulders
- Headache at teh back of the head
- Sore throat
- Irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and difficulty concentrating
- Stiffness / decreased range of motion in teh nck
- Tingling, numbness or weakness in the hands or arms
It is important to have a physician evaluate your injury to rule out anything serious. Once a diagnosis of sprain or strain is confirmed, the treatment is the same as other soft tissue injuries. First aide includes R.I.C.E. therapy (rest, ice, compression and elevation). Neck sprains are painful and take time to heal, so you may need to wear a soft cervical collar to help support the head and relieve pressure on the neck while ligaments heal.
Anti-inflammatory medications, can help reduce the pain and any swelling. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed by your doctor to help reduce muscle spasms. Applying ice to the neck (15 to 20 minutes at a time), several times a day for up to three days after the injury will help reduce inflammation and pain. Applying heat should be avoided in the early stages of the injury because heat will increase the circulation and increase swelling.
Most symptoms of a neck strain will decrease in four to six weeks, but a severe injury can take even longer to heal completely. For this reason, it is wise to avoid a return to contact sports until several months of being pain-free. You may also benefit from a visit to a physical therapist to ensure a safe and appropriate return to exercise.