What is a strained neck muscle?

Treatment for a strained neck muscle usually involves the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), followed up with physical therapy. For serious strained neck muscle, immobilizing the muscle with a cast can be treatment.
Treatment for a strained neck muscle usually involves the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), followed up with physical therapy. For serious strained neck muscle, immobilizing the muscle with a cast can be treatment.

The muscles in your neck allow you to hold up your head and look around. There are many neck muscles and they can all be strained while doing some simple tasks. Many people strain neck muscles while they sleep in an awkward position.

If you suddenly have a pain in your neck after exercising or waking up from a nap, you might have pulled a muscle in your neck. Learn what a strained neck muscle is, how you can treat it, and how your doctor may be able to help.

You strain a muscle when you overstretch it or try to contract it too hard. A muscle strain is a tear in the muscle. A neck muscle strain occurs when you do something to one or more of the muscles in your neck that causes it to overstretch. There are several symptoms and conditions of neck muscle strains.

Symptoms of a strained neck muscle

When you strain a muscle, your body will react a few different ways depending on how severe the tear is. You might experience:

  • Swelling in the area of the tear
  • Muscle spasms or cramps
  • Loss of muscle function
  • A decrease in muscle strength
  • Pain and sensitivity in the affected area
  • Bruising or discoloration
  • A muscle appearing to have a dent or depression
  • A popping sound and sensation at the site of the tear

Causes of a strained neck muscle

Regardless of someone’s age, strains generally occur when they have not conditioned their muscles to take on the task they want to do. Examples include:

  • Athletic activities that require explosive movement
  • Stretching too far during warmup
  • Overextending or using too much force on cold muscles

Neck muscles can be strained during much less intense moments, such as bending your head down to look at a phone or tablet or sleeping in the wrong position. You can strain a neck muscle by watching television at an odd angle for too long as well. This is common in modern society as we all spend more time looking down at a screen or sitting in front of a computer.

Who can strain a neck muscle?

A strain usually means you may have tried to lift something too heavy or attempted to use a muscle in a way you typically don’t. Lack of exercise and extended time in one position increase your chances of straining a neck muscle, but anyone can strain a neck muscle regardless of lifestyle.

Diagnosing a strained neck muscle

Diagnosis depends on how badly you’ve strained your neck. Doctors classify strains into three grades to diagnose and treat them:

  • Grade I: mild damage to muscle tissue, with little loss of function and strength
  • Grade II: more muscle fibers are torn, with reduced function and strength
  • Grade III: a muscle or tendon is completely torn, with no muscle function

The doctor will conduct a physical examination of the area and ask about the circumstances surrounding the strain. They'll want to know about your medical history as well to see if there are any underlying conditions.

Doctors may use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at muscle tears after an X-ray to ensure no bones are broken or tendons are torn. The treatment the doctor chooses depends on the grade of a muscle tear.


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Treatments for a strained neck muscle

For Grade I and II strains, doctors usually prescribe the RICE method—Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation—to treat the muscle, followed up with physical therapy to restrengthen the torn muscle and the surrounding fibers.

The doctor may give you a neck brace to help support your neck. The brace can either be a soft, supportive type or be rigid to provide more support.

A Grade III strain is a complete tear, so it will need to be treated by immobilizing the muscle with a cast if possible. Neck muscle strains are rarely Grade III unless there is severe trauma accompanying the strain.

Complications of a strained neck muscle

Grade I and II strains generally heal and function normally, even if you don’t see a doctor or treat yours. However, they might not recover fully if you don’t rehabilitate them correctly. This could make it easier to strain the muscle again or not get 100% of the muscle's function back.

If you’ve torn a neck muscle completely (Grade III), it is probably accompanied by spinal damage or injury. In this case, you might be experiencing several symptoms related to other injuries.

If you’ve had a whiplash-type injury, you might experience:

You should consult a doctor to rule out any more serious problems. The following symptoms could indicate a spinal cord injury:

  • Instability in your neck
  • Bowel and bladder control problems
  • Difficulty walking
  • Weakness in your arms and legs

If you experience those symptoms right after an injury to your neck, visit an emergency room as soon as you can.

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Medically Reviewed on 2/4/2021
Cleveland Clinic: "Neck Sprain."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Muscle Strain."

Hospital for Special Surgery: "Muscle Strain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment"