How to Ease a Neck Strain
A neck sprain refers to an injury to a ligament, while a neck strain is a muscle injury—a pulled muscle. These two terms are often used interchangeably (and incorrectly) when describing neck pain. When a neck strain occurs as a result of a specific injury, athletes and coaches might simply refer to it as a jammed neck.
A strained neck might be classified as an acute injury, but a neck ache seems to be a chronic, off-and-on problem for many athletes as they get older. But regardless of what you call it and how often it occurs, “a pain in the neck” is serious enough to limit participation in sports, but very treatable in most cases.
How It Happens
The exact cause is not clear, but irritation of either the ligaments (in the case of a sprain) or stretched, overused muscles (in the case of a strain) can cause a neck ache.
In golfers and tennis players, it’s more likely to be caused by overuse. In contact sport athletes, a neck strain happens when a player gets hit and the neck is suddenly, forcefully flexed forward or extended backward. Getting hit from behind is a particular risk and exposes the athlete to a whiplash-type injury.
In any case, the soft tissues can be damaged and will need time and treatment to heal.
By the Numbers
Rank of sports injuries involving the neck behind motor vehicle accidents as a cause for emergency room visits.
Percentage of football players (most commonly in defensive ends, linemen, and linebackers) who sustain cervical spine injuries, including neck strains.
Percentage of football players with two previous neck injuries who will have a third neck injury.
Percentage of wrestlers who sustain a neck injury during any single year.
Percentage of wrestlers who have had a neck injury who will have a subsequent neck injury.
Who’s At Risk
Wrestlers, football, lacrosse, rugby and hockey players are in a high-risk group for neck injuries, but other frequent victims include golfers and tennis players. The incidence of neck pain increases as an athlete gets older.
- Neck pain/neck ache
- Neck pain that develops 12-24 hours after an injury has occurred
- Muscle pain or spasms in the neck or shoulders
If there is any possibility that a serious neck or spine injury has occurred, the athlete should not move or be moved. Send for emergency medical assistance immediately. Clues pointing toward a serious injury are leg pain, arm pain, a tingling sensation or numbness. In milder, routine neck strains, follow these guidelines:
- Rest until the symptoms subside. Give your neck time to heal.
- Apply ice packs for 15-20 minutes, 3-4 times a day for the first 48-72 hours.
- After 48-72 hours, apply moist heat 15-20 minutes, 3-4 times a day to relieve pain.
- Aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen may relieve pain. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen may relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
- See a doctor if the pain persists for 1-2 weeks.
- Use a neck collar or neck brace if your doctor advises you to do so.
Incorporate this prehab exercise into your comeback routine:
- Active Range of Motion for Neck
When training, keep your head in a neutral position; do not torque to one side or in one position.
If neck or head pain develops while training, stop immediately and seek assistance from a licensed health-care professional.
How to Avoid This Injury
Blows to the head and neck may not be avoidable, but you can take a few measures to reduce the risk of neck strains.
- Do not increases the frequency, duration, or intensity of exercise more than 10 percent a week.
- Take breaks when your sport allows it.
- Wear protective equipment appropriate for your sport.
- Use a foam roll to gently massage the neck.
Incorporate these movement prep exercises into your warm-up routine:
- Gentle Active Range of Motion Movements (see No. 1 in Comeback Strategy) - Do not pull or push head with hands.
- Watch yourself in a mirror (to learn to “feel” a neutral position).
- Massage Roller Stick (have a friend gently use a massage roller stick—no more than 3-5 pounds of pressure—to the shoulders, upper back, neck and traps region.
Jim Brown, Ph.D. has written 14 books on health, medicine, and sports. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Post, Sports Illustrated for Women and Better Homes & Gardens. He also writes for the Duke School of Medicine, UCLA School of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic and Steadman-Hawkins Research Foundation.
- Jennifer Lewis, PT, DPT, ATC, Performance Physical Therapist, Athletes’ Performance, Phoenix, Arizona
- Hughston Health Alert
- Sports Injury Bulletin
- University of Michigan Health System