A neck strain or sprain occurs when one or more neck muscles, ligaments or tendons are injured. Most cases are mild or moderate, but severe cases need medical attention.
How long does a neck strain last?
Depending on the severity of the strain, most patients can expect to recover within a few days.
With more severe neck strain, full recovery could take anywhere from one to three months.
Don't let a severe neck strain go untreated
If you’ve been involved in something major, like a car accident, you may well exhibit more severe symptoms. Be sure to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Symptoms of neck strain
Even though a majority of neck strain cases are mild or moderate and will resolve without needing medical care, nearly all cases are bothersome. Here’s what to look for in telling the difference between mild or moderate cases and more severe cases of neck strain.
Symptoms of mild to moderate neck strains
Symptoms of a mild or moderate neck strain can include:
- Achy or throbbing pain.
- Muscle spasms.
- Pain in the back of the neck or shoulders.
- Pain that worsens with movement.
- Sharp pain.
Symptoms of more severe neck strains
If you experience any of these more severe symptoms, be sure to see your doctor.
- Difficulty with finger dexterity.
- Gait disturbances or feeling off balance.
- Headache or dizziness.
- Loss of bladder or bowel control.
- Neck instability.
- Pain, tingling, numbness, and/or weakness that radiates down into the shoulder, arm, or hand.
- Visual problems or sensitivity to bright lights.
Causes of neck strain
Some common causes of neck strain include:
- Lifting heavy items. The exertion when working to move something too heavy can easily strain the neck muscles.
- Performing a new activity. Stressing your neck muscles in a new way makes them more susceptible to strain.
- Poor posture. When you hold your head too far forward or tilted at an odd angle for too long from working on the computer or sleeping, your neck’s muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues can become overstretched. One of the more common causes of neck strain now is “text neck,” which is caused by looking down at your device for too long or too often.
- Repetitive motions. Even when your neck is used to doing the same motion, too many repeated movements can cause muscle strain.
- Violent collision or fall. A sudden impact may cause whiplash or other neck injuries. Examples include auto accidents, bike accidents, or injuries from sports like football.
Treatments for neck strain
Treatments for mild to moderate neck strains
Treatments for mild to moderate neck strains might include:
Modifying activities. Resting is one of the simplest ways to help your neck start feeling better. If you try to “push through” your pain in order to continue your normal level of activity, you’re increasing the chance of worsening your injury and its associated pain.
Using ice and/or heat therapy. You should apply ice within the first 48 hours of your injury to help reduce swelling. After that, heat or ice may be applied, depending on your preference. Heat helps blood circulate and helps damaged tissue heal. Keep applications between 10-20 minutes with rest periods in between (be sure to place something between your skin and the hot/cold source to avoid skin damage).
Over-the-counter pain medication. Anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen (e.g. Advil) or naproxen (e.g. Aleve), help reduce inflammation and pain. Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol), may also be an option.
Treatments for severe neck strains
More serious neck strains require more involved treatments in order to bring relief. They might include:
Manual manipulation. You can have a trained medical professional manually adjust your neck and back. Their goal will be to realign joints, improve your neck’s range of motion, and reduce pain.
Massage therapy. Massage is an effective way to loosen up and relax your neck muscles. It can also increase blood flow to any damaged tissues, which may provide some relief. You can sometimes find massage therapy offered together with manual manipulation.
Physical therapy. Physical therapy helps improve flexibility and strengthen the muscles in the neck. Once you learn how to do the exercises with a physical therapist, you’ll eventually be able to continue the program at home, as needed.
Prescription medications. On rare occasions, a neck strain may be severe enough to require a prescription medication in order to get relief.
Acupuncture. This treatment strategically places thin needles into key pressure points in your body in order to restore balanced energy flows and reduce pain. Although not clinically proven, anecdotal evidence indicates pain relief from acupuncture treatments.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about neck strains
If you have a strained neck, sleep on your back or side for best results. Compared to sleeping on your stomach, both positions are much better for your spine and neck.
If the muscles in the upper part of your neck are tense due to neck strain, a headache can result.
Not typically. If you’re experiencing dizziness, it’s likely a symptom of something other than neck strain.
Both work well for neck strain. Please see the “Treatments for Neck Strain” section to learn more.
Yes. Massage can be a very effective treatment for a pulled neck muscle.
Orthoinfo: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Neck Sprain (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/neck-sprain/)
American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS). Neck Pain (https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Neck-Pain)