Neck Sprain Symptoms and What to Do About Them

How Severe is Your Injury?

Neck sprains can range from mild or moderate to 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

A painful neck injury can be alarming. It can be hard to know if you or someone else has had serious neck damage. Often, a neck injury leads to bruising, dislocation, or a neck sprain or strain. Sometimes a neck injury can cause a cervical spine fracture (broken neck bone).

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.

What Is a Neck Sprain?

A neck or back sprain occurs as a result of trauma, such as a whiplash incident, a fall, or sudden twisting movement of the spine. A sprain affects ligaments, which are bands of tissues that, 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 slowly or suddenly, for example:

  • Quickly due to a whiplash event from a rear-end car accident
  • Slowly over time from repeatedly maintaining poor posture while sitting at a computer

Neck Sprain Symptoms

Pain is the most common symptom of a neck sprain. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), 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 is possible too. 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 48-hours after the Injury is not generally advised.

Associated Symptoms and Complications

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, 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.

Muscle spasms in the upper shoulder area often accompany neck sprains. 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.

If you have new or worsening numbness, tingling, or weakness after a trauma, you should see a medical provider urgently to be evaluated.

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 mild grade 1 to severe grade 3. A severe neck strain requires immediate medical attention.

Grade 1

A grade 1 sprain is the mildest form. 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.

You might experience swelling and stiffness, and you'll likely get at least a bit black and blue in the area of the trauma. With this level of injury, you won't be able to use the joint(s) as well as before.

It is recommended to reduce your activity levels for a while. Physical therapy treatment may be helpful.

Grade 3

Grade 3 sprains are serious, often resulting in complete ligament rupture.

You may experience a 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

If you suspect that someone in your environment has sustained a serious neck sprain, or a possible broken neck, call for emergency medical services immediately. It's critical to keep the person as immobilized as possible until qualified help arrives on the scene.

If you've been diagnosed with a low-grade neck sprain, let your pain be your guide as you recover. If you have persistent pain or if it feels like your movement is affected In any way, follow up with a healthcare provider.

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

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.