What is a Neck Strain?

Charity Delich

A neck strain is usually the consequence of an acute injury to the cervical spine, which is the part of the spine enclosed within a person’s neck. Neck pain often results from muscle stress in the neck. Strains often occur when a person’s head is sharply flung backward or forward, a phenomenon known as whiplash. Neck strain may also be caused from the force of an object landing on top of a person’s head. Damage to a person’s vital structures, such as the airway or the blood vessels that supply the brain, are typically not part of the definition of a neck strain.

Resting with a pillow under the neck may alleviate mild or moderate neck strains.
Resting with a pillow under the neck may alleviate mild or moderate neck strains.

Car accidents are one of the leading causes of muscle strain in the neck. For example, if a car stops abruptly, a person who is wearing a seatbelt may experience whiplash. Individuals who work at jobs that require continued neck extension can also suffer from neck shoulder strain. Other individuals suffer from neck strain due to repeated poor posture while sleeping or even when they are awake.

Computer and office workers often suffer neck strain due to poor posture and long hours spent in front of a computer screen.
Computer and office workers often suffer neck strain due to poor posture and long hours spent in front of a computer screen.

Neck strains are more common than injuries to other parts of the spine, such as the thoracic, lumbar, and sacral spine areas. This is largely because the cervical spine contains a smaller number of muscles and ligaments than the other areas of the spine. Neck strain symptoms primarily include the sensation of pain in the neck, neck muscle spasms, or the inability to perform daily tasks that could previously be done before the strain.

Sleeping in awkward positions may cause a person to have neck strain.
Sleeping in awkward positions may cause a person to have neck strain.

Orthopedic doctors frequently differentiate neck muscle strain from a neck sprain, even though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably by lay persons. A neck strain involves an injury to tissues that move and contract, such as tendons and muscles. On the other hand, a sprain is generally the result of an injury to non-moving structures. For example, nerves, blood vessels, cartilage, and ligaments may all be subject to a sprain.

Neck strain might result from an auto accident.
Neck strain might result from an auto accident.

A minor to moderate strain in the neck can usually be treated at home. Depending on the level of pain, bed rest may be necessary. When resting, an individual may wish to place a small pillow under his or her neck to provide appropriate support and to ease neckaches. Applying heat to the strained area can also help provide pain relief. Additionally, over-the-counter pain relief drugs can be helpful in easing the pain.

Neck strains are more common than other injuries to the spine, and can cause neck pain and spasms.
Neck strains are more common than other injuries to the spine, and can cause neck pain and spasms.

With the correct self-care, most neck strains heal themselves after a period of time. An individual who suffers from chronic or severe neck strains should, however, receive a comprehensive physical examination by a doctor. The doctor can conduct diagnostic imaging and can employ other techniques to uncover the source of pain. In addition, the doctor can map out a plan to help heal the neck strain.

Whiplash is a type of neck strain often seen in people wearing seatbelts in an accident.
Whiplash is a type of neck strain often seen in people wearing seatbelts in an accident.

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