When to see a doctor for neck pain
A neck strain is an injury to the muscles or tendons of your neck muscles and tendons — two types of soft tissue. The strain can vary in severity. The greater the damage, the longer it takes your neck tissues to heal.
It typically takes days to weeks for strains to heal. Your symptoms should gradually improve over this time — provided you fix any underlying causes and follow an appropriate treatment plan.
An exception to this timeline is whiplash — a common cause of soft-tissue damage in your neck. It results from sudden and sharp forward and backward movements of your head and neck. It may take you much longer to heal from this injury. Around 40% of people still report symptoms 15 years after the injury.
Neck sprains are related to soft-tissue injuries — typically involving ligaments, which connect bone to bone. These have similar symptoms and treatment plans to strains. They can take between four to six weeks to heal — or even longer for severe injuries.
Your neck is a crucial part of your body, connecting your brain to your organs and limbs — your arms and legs. Injuries to — and pain in — this area can be severe. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if the pain is:
Common causes of strained neck muscles
Your neck is composed of seven vertebrae — a type of bone in your spine — as well as tendons, muscles, and ligaments. These need to stay in proper alignment with each other to support your head. Neck injuries are commonly caused by your neck bending into an extreme position.
Prolonged or repeated stress to your muscles is the most common cause of strain. This could be from bending over a desk or computer as a student or at work. Sometimes bad pillows and poor posture can also cause neck pain.
Sudden movements can stretch or tear your soft tissues, causing strains. This is the case in most strains caused by sports injuries — particularly without a thorough warm-up routine.
Whiplash is also a common cause of acute neck strains. This injury frequently occurs in car accidents when your vehicle is hit from any direction, but mainly from behind.
Symptoms of a strained neck muscle
The severity of your symptoms depends on the extent of your injury. There are three main categories of strain defined by the amount of damage done to your muscle or tendon. These are:
- Grade 1. These are mild strains where very few fibers — parts of the muscle — are stretched or torn. Your muscle will keep its normal strength but be painful and tender.
- Grade 2. These strains include many damaged fibers and may modify muscle activity. The pain and tenderness are worse than a grade 1 strain. There can also be some swelling and muscle weakness.
- Grade 3. These are the most severe strains — where the muscle has completely torn in two or broken away from one of its tendons. You could probably hear a popping sound when a Grade 3 tear happens. You’ll lose complete muscle function. Pain, swelling, tenderness, and discoloration will be extreme.
Treatment for a strained neck muscle
Treatment for your neck strain depends on the severity of the damage. It can include:
- Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, muscle relaxers, or other medications to ease your pain and swelling
- Careful mobilization — movement — and manipulation of the area to prevent stiffening
- Icing the spot two to three times a day for several days
- Heat — which helps loosen your muscles — can be applied after any inflammation has gone down, but shouldn’t be used at the beginning of your treatment plan
Other treatments can help, but you should talk to your doctor before trying any of them with your particular injury. These include:
- Ultrasound therapy
- Exercises and stretches
How to prevent a strained neck muscle
Neck pain becomes chronic — long-lasting or recurring — in about 10% of cases. Some strains are more likely to happen again after the first time, so it’s important for you to take some preventative steps to reduce the chances of your neck pain returning.
You can use stretching and strengthening exercises designed to help your neck muscles. Discuss this with your doctor or physical therapist to find exercises that are safe for your injury and won’t cause more damage.
You can also make lifestyle changes to decrease stress and strain on your neck muscles. This could include trying out a new pillow or sleep position. You should also be aware of your posture at work or when using a computer.
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BMJ Clinical Evidence: "Neck pain."
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WorldWide Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development: "A Knowledge Based System for Neck Pain Diagnosis."
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