Neck Sprain Symptoms and What to Do About Them

What to Expect when You Injure Your Cervical Spine

Neck Sprain Symptons
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It's often difficult for we non-medical people to truly know the extend of a neck injury or condition that gives us pain. When trauma first happens, or pain first comes on, it's easy to blow it out of proportion.

For example, upon a blow to your neck, you may initially (and frantically) think it's broken.

Here's the good news: Trauma to the neck is rarely serious and even less often life threatening.

That said, an abundance of caution is a good thing immediately following an injury, or when your symptoms flare up. Caution can help you avoid making the problem worse — in some cases, much worse — before qualified medical providers can get on the scene,or before you can make it to the doctor's office. This is especially true when you couple the caution with common sense measures.

So if your neck symptoms do not point to a catastrophic emergency, then what do they indicate? A number of possibilities come to mind. One of them is a sprain. Let's unpack this term a bit.

What is a Neck Sprain?

A neck or back sprain occurs as a result of trauma, such as a whiplash incident, a fall, or even sudden twisting movement of the spine. It differs from a strain in that it affects ligaments, which are bands of tissues that, much like straps, hold the bones together at the joints. (Strains, on the other hand, affect muscles.)

Neck sprains tend to occur when a joint or joints are forced beyond normal limits. This can happen all at once, as in a whiplash event (rear end car accident) or slowly over time as when, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, you maintain poor posture while sitting at your computer.

Most likely your neck sprain will be accompanied by pain. But there are a number of other symptoms to be aware of, as well. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the symptoms of neck sprain include:

  • Neck pain that worsens with movement. This type of neck pain will be concentrated mostly in the back of the neck, AAOS says.
  • Delayed onset neck pain. This just means you may not feel neck pain related to your injury the first day or so after the trauma. It may instead appear one or two days later. So don't write yourself off with an "I'm fine" before the 48 hour mark.
  • Muscle spasms (and pain) in the upper shoulder area
  • A headache that is concentrated in the back of the head.
  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or hand. These may be signs of radiculopathy, which is an irritated or compressed spinal nerve root. Irritated spinal nerve roots are often, but not always, caused by herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
  • A stiff neck
  • Decreased flexibility in your neck when you try to move your head up or down, from side to side and/or when you attempt to roll your neck
  • Sore throat
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping and concentrating.
  • Swelling in the area of your neck and shoulders.

Grades of Neck or Back Sprains

The intensity of a ligament sprain (as well as a muscle strain) is measured in degrees, which span from mild (aka Grade 1) to severe (Grade 3.)

A Grade 1 sprain is the lightest. Some fibers of the ligaments that surround the joint or joints will likely be stretched, but the joint will, for the most part, stay stable. You may experience mild to moderate pain, some swelling in the area and/or tenderness to the touch.

Grade 2 sprains are considered moderate and consist of partial tearing and some joint instability.Swelling and stiffness may ensue, and you'll likely get at least a bit black and blue in the area of the trauma. You won't be able to use the joint(s) as well as before; it's probably a good idea to downwardly adjust your activity levels for a while, anyway.

Grade 3 sprains are serious, often resulting in complete ligament rupture, loss of function and joint instability. The affected area will most likely swell up and become black and blue (ecchymosis.)

Should you suspect someone in your environment has sustained a serious neck sprain, and possible broken neck, activate emergency medical services (e.g., call 911.) Also, it's critical to keep the person as immobilized as possible until qualified medical help arrives on the scene.

For the other grades, let your pain be your guide. If there's a lot of it and/or the joint(s) in question can't function, seek medical attention at your earliest convenience. In any case, if your pain and/or swelling hasn't diminished after a week's time, it's time to take your symptoms to a doctor for evaluation.


View Article Sources
  • Source:
  • Magee, D. Orthopedic Physical Assessment. 4th ed. Saunders Elsiver. St. Louis. 2006.
  • Your Orthopedic Connection. Neck Sprain. AAOS website. August Last Updated 2013.
  • Moore, K., Dalley, A. Clinically Oriented Anatomy. 5th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Baltimore. 2006.