Neck Sprain Symptoms and What to Do About Them

How Severe is Your Injury?

Neck sprains can be mild, moderate or severe. Following an incident that causes neck trauma, you can experience a range of symptoms. See how to tell which category of sprain your injury falls into and when to see the healthcare provider.

Neck Sprain Common Symptoms
Verywell / Gary Ferster

After Neck Trauma

It's often difficult for non-medical people to truly know the extent of a painful neck injury or condition. When trauma first happens, or pain first comes on, the tendency is to either blow it out of proportion or minimize it, perhaps to our own detriment.

For example, upon injuring your neck, you may initially think it's broken. The good news is, 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 healthcare provider's office. This is especially true when you couple the caution with common-sense measures.

If your neck symptoms do not point to a catastrophic emergency, then what do they indicate? Of course, your healthcare provider will likely help you here; just the same, 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. A sprain 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 resulting from a 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.

Neck Sprain Symptoms

Most likely your neck sprain will be accompanied by pain. 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.

Another thing to watch out for is delayed onset neck pain. This term refers to the possibility that pain related to your injury might not show up the first day or so after the trauma. Rather, you may feel it one or two days later.

The potential for delayed onset pain after trauma to your neck is a big reason why writing off the incident with an "I'm fine" before the 48-hour mark is not generally advised.

Muscle spasms in the upper shoulder area often accompany neck sprains, as well. While they may be uncomfortable enough to seem like the cause of your problems, they are really the body's way of protecting itself from further harm, or from excessive pain.

Headaches that are concentrated in the back of the head may accompany neck sprains as well.

You may experience numbness, tingling or weakness in your arm or hand following a neck sprain. These are signs of radiculopathy, which occurs when a spinal nerve root becomes irritated or compressed by a nearby structure. Irritated spinal nerve roots are often, but not always, caused by herniated discs or spinal stenosis.

Other neck sprain symptoms include a stiff neck and decreased flexibility when you try to move your head up or down, from side to side and/or when you attempt to roll your neck.

A sore throat, irritability, fatigue, trouble sleeping and concentrating, and swelling in the area of your neck and shoulders are also possible.

Grades of Neck Sprains

The intensity of a ligament sprain (as well as a muscle strain) is measured in degrees. Grades of sprain span from a mild grade 1 to grade 3, which is severe and requires not only immediate medical attention but possible emergency first aid, as well.

Grade 1

A grade 1 sprain is the mildest form of the injury. 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

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. Physical therapy treatment is a good idea.

Grade 3

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. This is called ecchymosis.

When to See the Healthcare Provider/Call 911

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

For the other grades, let your pain be your guide. If there's a lot of it and/or you notice the joint(s) in question aren't functioning properly, 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 healthcare provider for evaluation.


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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Neck Sprain. Reviewed June 2019.

  2. The 7 faces of neck pain. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School.

  3. Radiculopathy. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Health.

  4. Alfraidy D, Helmi H, Alamodi Alghamdi M, Bokhair A, Alsaif A. Rare cause of acute neck hematoma. Clin Case Rep. 2019;7:1378-1381. doi:10.1002/ccr3.2248