Neck Strain Causes and Treatment

Whiplash is a condition caused by injury to the soft-tissue structures of the neck. Usually, whiplash is a strain of the tendons or a sprain of the ligaments that move and support the head and neck.

Often whiplash occurs after a sudden, unexpected extension and flexion of the neck, such as during a car crash. While different from whiplash, neck muscle strains can result from having your neck in an awkward position, such as sleeping in a chair.

Young woman in bed with neck ache
Stephanie Horrocks / E+ / Getty Images

Why the Neck Is Vulnerable

The neck is prone to whiplash injuries because of the structure of the cervical spine. The cervical vertebrae are connected with ligaments and supported by muscles.

Together, these structures provide the head with support and work together to allow a wide range of motions. When your neck muscles or ligaments are injured, the resulting pain can seriously interfere with your daily life. That's why whiplash injuries are so problematic.


A brief period of resting your neck may help alleviate the initial pain and spasm of your neck muscles after a whiplash injury. This is an important aspect of treatment. However, prolonged rest may cause stiffness, so be sure to follow the guidance of your healthcare provider or physical therapist when it comes to rest and activity.

A few other simple steps may help your neck strain symptoms:

If it is clear that your symptoms are due to a simple neck strain or ligament sprain, then these steps should help your condition.

If these conservative measures do not alleviate your symptoms, you should let your healthcare provider know that your symptoms are persistent.

Symptoms That Indicate Something Other Than Whiplash

There are many other conditions that can cause neck pain, some of which are serious and require medical attention.

Warning signs that signal the need for further evaluation include:

  • Weakness of the hands or arms: These symptoms may be due to compression of the spinal cord or the spinal nerves which exit the cord. Some causes include ruptured discs and spinal stenosis. This can also be caused by other conditions like carpal or cubital tunnel syndrome.
  • Numbness or abnormal sensations in the hands and arms: These symptoms can be caused by injury to the spinal cord or nerves.
  • Systemic symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fevers, chills, or sweats can be signs of an infection or a tumor.
  • Lack of improvement over time: If your neck pain continues to be problematic, you should have further evaluation.

Chronic conditions (such as arthritis and osteoporosis) and acute problems (such as fractures) can cause symptoms similar to a neck strain.

9 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. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Whiplash information page.

  2. North American Spine Society. Whiplash and whiplash associated disorder (WAS).

  3. American Physical Therapy Association. Physical therapy guide to neck pain.

  4. Machado GC, Maher CG, Ferreira PH, Day RO, Pinheiro MB, Ferreira ML. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for spinal pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Rheum Dis. 2017;76(7):1269-1278. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2016-210597

  5. American Physical Therapy Association. Physical therapy guide to spinal stenosis.

  6. American Physical Therapy Association. Physical therapy guide to carpal tunnel syndrome.

  7. American Physical Therapy Association. Physical therapy guide to cubital tunnel syndrome.

  8. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Numbness in hands.

  9. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Neck pain.

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.