What is a Neck Sprain?
Neck sprain or its aliases: neck spasms, neck muscle strain or simply neck muscle pain, is very common.
In fact, neck sprain is the probably the most common source of neck pain. The good news is, that it is also one of the quickest neck problems to heal and rehabilitate.
What Causes Neck Sprain?
Most causes of neck sprain are muscle, ligament or joint related. Commonly, these neck injuries are caused by neck muscular strains, ligament sprains and/or neck joint dysfunction, particularly when pain arises suddenly during or following physical loading of your neck. Muscle fatigue (poor posture sitting or sleeping eg wry neck), excessive loads (lifting heavy items), or high-speed injuries (eg whiplash, concussions) are the most common causes.
The causes of neck pain are numerous but roughly fall into the following categories.
Neck Muscle Strain
Neck muscle pain is the most common source of neck pain. Muscle fatigue, excessive loads or poor lifting or sitting postures are the most common problems.
Inefficient, weak, or neck muscles that lack endurance can lead to poor neck joint stabilisation and subsequent injury to your neck muscles, ligaments, joints or even spinal discs.
Poor posture when sitting, standing and lifting at work, can place unnecessary stress upon your neck and spine. With muscle fatigue or overstretching, your ligaments and discs can stretch and this places spinal joint muscles and nerves under pain-causing pressure or strain, that results in neck or back pain.
Neck Ligament Sprains
Ligaments are the strong fibrous bands that limit the amount of movement at available at each spinal level. Stretching ligaments too far or too quickly will tear them with subsequent bleeding into the surrounding tissues, causing swelling, muscular spasm and pain.
Awkward lifting, sports injuries (concussion or collisions) and motor vehicle accidents (whiplash) are very common causes. Just as in other regions of the body, physiotherapy hastens ligament healing and relieves pain so that you can enjoy life again as soon as possible.
What are Symptoms of Neck Sprain?
Neck muscle pain symptoms may range from a mild ache, stiff neck, neck spasms, muscle knots to sudden debilitating neck pain or even shoulder and shoulder blade pain.
Typical neck sprain symptoms include:
- Localised neck pain and stiffness.
- Neck muscle tenderness, tightness, knots or spasms.
You will usually feel better when resting or supporting your neck, and may find that a change of neck position painful eg look down, up or sideways, rolling in bed, lift your head or quick neck movements.
Warning Signs of a More Serious Neck Injury?
In these instances, or you have constant and severe neck pain, you may have a more severe injury such as a disc bulge or pinched nerve in your neck. These can affect your upper limb and lower limb function. Very severe cases can even affect your bodily function such as your bladder or bowel control. If this is the case, please urgently consult your nearest hospital, doctor or physiotherapist.
- pins and needles (paraesthesia) in your neck or arm
- numbness (anaesthesia) in your neck or arm,
- arm or leg muscle weakness,
- altered tendon reflexes (eg biceps to triceps jerk),
- difficulty lifting arms overhead or walking,
- loss of control of bladder or bowels.
How is Neck Sprain Diagnosed?
Differentiating a neck muscle strain from a ligament sprain can be difficult, as both injuries will show similar symptoms. However, an experienced healthcare practitioner such as a musculoskeletal physiotherapist is highly trained to specifically assess your muscles, ligaments, joints, discs and any potential nerve compromise. Please seek their professional opinion since neck treatments can vary considerably depending on your diagnosis.
What about Investigative Studies?
X-rays do not identify muscle or ligament injury but will identify arthritic changes and bone injuries such as fractures. MRI scan is probably the thorough diagnostic test to specifically identify disc, bone, muscle or ligament structures are injured and to what extent. CT scans are also very good. However, they are static images and do not identify locked joints or hypermobile joints without ligament rupture.
What is Neck Sprain Treatment?
Seek a Professional Diagnosis!
All neck pain sufferers should be thoroughly examined by a spinal health practitioner eg physiotherapist. Neck pain is designed to notify you to protect your neck injury and resolution of your pain may not restore you to normal neck joint range, muscle length and strength to prevent a future recurrence. Your physiotherapist has some nifty tricks for quickly relieving your neck sprain pain so that you can enjoy life again as soon as possible.
Neck Sprain Treatment Aims
PHASE I – Pain Relief & Protection
Managing your neck pain is the main reason that you seek treatment for neck sprain. In truth, the pain was actually the final symptom that you developed and should be the first symptom to improve.
Your physiotherapist will use an array of treatment tools to protect your neck sprain and reduce your pain and inflammation. These may include ice, electrotherapy eg tens, acupuncture, taping techniques, soft tissue massage, back braces, dry needling etc. Your doctor may also recommend a course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
PHASE II – Restoring Normal ROM, Strength
As your neck pain and inflammation settle, your physiotherapist will turn their attention to restoring your normal neck motion, muscle lengths and resting muscle tension, muscle strength and endurance, proprioception and joint position sense.
Your physiotherapist will commence you on a neck muscle stability program to facilitate your important muscles that dynamically control and stabilise your neck. Your physiotherapist will assess your muscle recruitment pattern and prescribe the best exercises for you specific to your needs.
PHASE III – Restoring Full Function
Depending on your chosen sport, work or activities of daily living, your physiotherapist will aim to restore your function to safely allow you to return to your desired activities. Everyone has different demands for their necks that will determine what specific treatment goals you need to achieve. Your physiotherapist will tailor your rehabilitation to help you achieve your own functional goals.
PHASE IV – Preventing a Neck Pain Recurrence
Recurrence of neck pain can and does regularly occur. The main reason it is thought to recur is due to insufficient rehabilitation. In particular, poor deep neck flexor muscle exercises have been shown to render your neck more vulnerable to instability and therefore re-injury.
To prevent a recurrence, you should continue a regular series of these exercises a few times per week. Think of your exercises as your anti-neck pain pill! Your physiotherapist will assist you in identifying the best exercises for you.
Neck Pain Treatment Options
There are many treatment options that your Physiotherapist will discuss with you in the treatment of your pain. Treatment varies based on the source of your individual symptoms.
Acupuncture or Dry Needling
Acupuncture has been an effective source of pain relief for over 5000 years. While we do not fully understand how it works, acupuncture can assist your neck pain relief. Ask your physiotherapist for advice as most of our PhysioWorks physiotherapists have acupuncture training. More info: Acupuncture
Massage always feels wonderful, plus it has wonderful muscle relaxation benefits. Neck massage is particularly useful when muscle spasm or chronic muscle tension is present. Regular remedial massage is also a very handy low back pain prevention strategy. More info: Massage
TENS machines are an electronic pain relieving device that will reduce your neck pain and your need for pain relieving drugs. More info: Tens Machine
What Recovery Can You Expect?
Neck pain has many causes and EARLY diagnosis and treatment is the best way to recover quickly.
Simple neck muscle pain can usually improve within a week or two of injury if you manage your injury properly. However, muscular pain or spasm lasting more than a few days is normally protective spasm overlying a more significant neck injury, which should be professionally investigated. It may not be just a simple neck muscle strain!
Most sufferers of neck pain will recover within 4 to 6 weeks. However, this time can vary greatly as it depends on both the nature of your injury and the treatment plan that you develop with your physiotherapist.
How Can You Prevent Recurring Neck Pain?
If you have suffered neck pain in the past, you are unfortunately more likely to suffer in the future and worsening bouts. The most common cause of recurrent neck pain is insufficient rehabilitation.
Follow the advice of your physiotherapist, who will establish a treatment plan to help you achieve your short-term goals and help prevent a recurrence.
While there are no guarantees, it is well known that active individuals who exercise and adopt safe lifting and postures at home and at work are at a reduced risk of developing neck pain.
Discuss with your physiotherapist the specific postures and activities that you perform on a daily basis. They will aim to help you to understand how to position yourself and move with the lowest risk of injury based on your injury type and potential weaknesses.
Neck Pain Causes
Neck Joint Injuries
Nerve-related / Referred Pain
Neck Pain Treatment
The best treatment for your neck pain is determined entirely by the specific reasons for WHY you are suffering neck pain. Everyone is different, but there are some common similarities.
Your physiotherapist is highly skilled at the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical neck pain and headache. Posture correction is essential, but it does depend upon the availability of enough joint and muscle flexibility to attain a good posture, plus muscle strength and endurance to maintain your proper position. Address any deficit.
We understand that your neck pain may not be solely about stiff or wobbly joints or tight/weak neck muscles. There is a whole gamut of information that your physiotherapist will analyse during your diagnostic consultation and then commence the correction of your problems. They'll also consider other systemic conditions that can cause neck pain, e.g. cancer, and direct you towards the appropriate healthcare practitioner if necessary.
Fortunately, the vast majority of neck pain does come from your neck joints and muscles. Pleasingly, researchers have shown that a combination of neck joint and muscle treatment performed by your physiotherapist and some specific strengthening exercises are an effective way to eliminate your neck pain, stiffness and headaches.
For advice specific to the diagnosis and management of your neck pain, please contact your trusted healthcare practitioner.
Common Neck Pain Treatment Options
If you are in severe neck pain or have a stiff neck, it is best to assess promptly to exclude any red flag conditions such as cancer and then commence the best neck treatment straight away.
Chronic neck pain can be a lingering problem due to habit. Research tells us that symptoms lasting longer than three months become habitual and are much harder to solve. The sooner you get on top of your neck symptoms, the better your outcome.
Some of the neck pain treatment options available may include the following:
- Bed Rest
- Early Injury Treatment
- Avoid the HARM Factors
- Acupuncture and Dry Needling
- Sub-Acute Soft Tissue Injury Treatment
- Soft Tissue Massage
- Heat Packs
- Joint Mobilisation Techniques
- Kinesiology Tape
- Physiotherapy Instrument Mobilisation (PIM)
- Strength Exercises
- Stretching Exercises
- Supportive Taping & Strapping
- TENS Machine
What's the Best Pillow for Neck Pain?
The correct pillow is also vital. If you are waking through the night or in the morning with a stiff or painful neck, it may be that it's your pillow and not your neck that is the cause.
A neck collar is not recommended for most non-traumatic injuries as the collar encourages muscle weakness. However, in severe neck spasm conditions such as wry neck or whiplash, a collar is often used in the first week to assist with muscle relaxation.
Please ask your physiotherapist for specific advice.
Will A Posture Brace Help Your Neck Pain?
Posture support braces have improved over the years with new designs being very useful in building awareness of what the correct posture is. Bracing or posture taping is excellent for teenagers, the elderly or those using computers.
There are various posture braces available. You can find more information about posture braces via our online shop.
For more advice, please consult your neck physiotherapist.