Common Neck Problems
Types of neck injuries
Damage to one anatomical part in your neck often means damage to others. For example, whiplash may result in one or several diagnoses including muscle strain, ligament sprain and/or disc injury. This is because the parts of your neck are connected. Bones, joints, soft tissue and nerves work together to hold up and move your head. As you review the most common neck injuries listed below, remember that you could be suffering from more than one of these conditions simultaneously.
Neck Injuries Affecting Soft Tissue
Most of the time, damage from a neck injury is limited to soft tissue. But nearly every type of neck injury, severe or mild, affects muscles. Below are the most common neck injuries affecting muscles, tendons, and/or ligaments. Remember, some of these, will occur in conjunction with more serious injury.
Strain is an injury to muscles that move the spine. Although they sometimes affect the neck, most strains occur in the low back. Bending over at the waist to lift a heavy object is a common cause of muscle strain. Symptoms include muscle spasm, reduced flexibility and pain. To treat a neck or back strain, most medical experts recommend modifying your activity to accommodate your pain and taking an over-the-counter pain medication. If the pain lasts longer than a week, or if it disrupts your usual activities, see a doctor.
Neck sprain (whiplash injury)
Neck sprains refer to a ligament sprain or muscle strain in the neck. They are most typically associated with the whiplash injury (common in a car accident) but also occur frequently during sports. They are the result of a fall, impact or contact with another person, object or surface.
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 shoulders, back and shoulders
- Headache at the back of the head
- Sore throat
- Irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and difficulty concentrating
- Stiffness / decreased range of motion in the neck
- 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 aid 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.