Neck and Back Sprain Injuries

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Neck and back sprains are among the most common musculoskeletal injuries. If you're not careful about how you move, you may sustain, or make worse, one of these painful conditions.

What is a Sprain?

A sprain is a soft tissue injury that overloads or overstretches one or more ligaments. Ligaments are strong bands of connective tissue that link a bone of one joint to another of that same joint. Their job is to limit excessive movement, so when you sprain one, you've likely forced it past it's threshold of structural integrity.

Ligaments are not elastic like muscles are, which means it's difficult, if not impossible, to get a sprained ligament back to it's normal length and strength. Generally, physical therapy and a strengthening program are needed to enable muscles to assume the responsibility previously attributed to the now damaged ligaments.

Sprain may be caused by a sudden injury to your back or neck, for example, whiplash. But it may also be due to gradual wear on the joints.

How Do You Know You Have A Sprained Neck or Back?

Symptoms of sprain include pain in the back of the neck or low back that gets worse when you move it, plus muscle spasms and stiffness. You may also find that you are fatigued or even irritable when your back or neck is sprained.

In the case of neck sprain, symptoms may also include headaches, sore throat, or numbness and/or weakness in your arms or hands. 

Pain from a sprain does not necessarily come on fully in the beginning. In other words, you may not feel the worst of your symptoms until the day after the inciting incident.

Degrees of Sprains

Sprains, (as well as strains) are measured in degrees. First-degree sprains are minor, and the best thing to do for them initially is RICE: Rest, ice, elevation and compression. (If you sprain your back, try icing the area and resting.) Aspirin or other types of NSAIDs may help as well. The goal in the first few days of a sprain to control inflammation.

At the other end of the spectrum, third-degree sprains involve complete rupture of all the fibers of a ligament. Third-degree sprains are serious injuries and can cause a lot of pain and inflammation, as well as instability of the joint. If pain is persistent or severe, consult a health care professional. If you or someone else has suffered a serious neck injury, seek immediate medical attention.

Getting Past a Sprained Neck or Back

Recovering from a sprain generally involves a number of things, many of which you can do on your own.

First, give it time to heal. Symptoms tend to go away in about a month to 6 weeks, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, although the Academy says it can take longer than that for the sprain to be completely healed.

Stay active but in a very low key way the first few days after the sprain occurs. You might ice the area a few times per day and do very light, gentle movements.

Taking aspirin or ibuprofen will likely help reduce any pain and swelling associated with the sprain. If you have a lot of muscle spasm, ask your doctor about muscle relaxers.

You might also ask your doctor about the possibility of wearing a neck collar if you've sprained your neck. This may keep your neck stable while the soft tissue healing takes place.

Also ask your doctor about physical therapy. A PT can create an exercise program tailored to your injury and may also give you other treatments such as ultrasound or traction.

Many neck and back pain patients keep a pain journal, recording things like what time of day the pain shows up or is the worst, what it feels like and any triggers that bring it on. The idea here is to come into your appointment prepared to thoroughly and accurately discuss your symptoms with your doctor.

But a 2015 study published in the journal Rheumatology International found that when it comes to sprained low back, for those who diligently kept pain journals, the recovery actually took longer. The study's author also reported on similar research studies that evaluated pain journals and neck sprain; the results were the same.

Moral of the story? Baby your mild sprains up to a point. The right kind of activity may be the best medicine of all.

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Article Sources
  • American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Neck Sprain. AAOS Website. Last Reviewed: December 2013.
  • Magee, D.J. Orthopedic Physical Assessment. 4th edition. Saunders Elsevier. 2006. St. Louis, Mo.
  • Mosby's Medical Dictionary. 7th edition. 2006. Mosby Elsevier. St. Louis, Mo.
  • Ferrari, R. Effect of a pain diary use on recovery from acute low back (lumbar) sprain. Rheumatol Int. Jan 2015 doi: 10.1007/s00296-014-3082-3.