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How to Recover from a Strained Neck

by Dan Hinckley » on May 26, 2020 0

We all know the feeling of waking up one morning with pain in our neck. It can make even the most everyday experiences like cooking, driving, or using a computer incredibly difficult. Sometimes our neck feels sore, with a dull ache, and sometimes we experience a shooting pain in our neck that just won’t go away. What we may not know is exactly how to characterize these injuries. What exactly makes for a strained neck, and how is it different from a sore neck, or just regular neck aches and pains? 

If you suspect you have a strained neck, it’s important for you to know the proper facts around diagnosis, treatment, recovery and prevention. Below, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about a strained neck: from what causes it, common symptoms, and tips for a quick recovery and future prevention. 

What is a Strained Neck?

So, what exactly is a neck strain? If you confuse it with a neck sprain, you’re not alone. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact different. A neck strain occurs when one or more fibers in a neck muscle or tendon is overly stretched. This results in a tear, which is what causes the pain (this is also called a pulled muscle, which can happen in many places on the body). Neck strains can vary in intensity depending on their size and location. A neck sprain is a similar injury, but involves an injury to a ligament, not a muscle or tendon. However, the symptoms are often quite similar for both a sprain and a strain, and so is the recovery process. 

What Causes a Strained Neck?

A neck strain can be caused by a myriad of factors, but some of the most common causes of a strained neck include: 

  • Poor posture when sitting or standing
  • Holding an awkward position, such as being hunched over a computer for several hours
  • Heavy lifting when the weight is too much to bear
  • Experiencing a collision or fall, which may lead to whiplash or other types of neck strain injuries
  • Performing new strenuous activity –for example, athletes are more likely to develop muscle strains at the beginning of a training season
  • Doing repetitive motions –even if you are not overexerting yourself, repeating motions can be what strains your neck muscle

In addition to these causes, an increasingly common problem is what specialists call “text neck,” which is an experience of neck pain that is caused by extended periods of looking down at a phone screen or other wireless device. 

What are Some Signs and Symptoms of a Strained Neck? 

Luckily, since neck strains fall into the general category of muscle strains or pulled muscles, nearly all cases are mild or moderate and likely to heal. However, that doesn’t mean that experiencing a neck strain isn’t highly uncomfortable. If you think you might be experiencing a neck strain, see if your symptoms include one or more of the following: 

  • Pain localized to the neck region: Typically, neck strains are felt in the back of the neck, or in the neck combined with a nearby area, such as the shoulder or upper back. This pain may be sharp, or knife-like when the strain first occurs, and then turn into an achy, dull, or throbbing pain that persists over time, affecting sleep or concentration. 

 

  • Pain that flares up with movement: A typical sign of a neck strain is when the neck has no pain when still, but then flares up with sharp pain with certain movements. 
  • Muscle spasm: In a neck strain, the injury’s inflammation from the injury can trigger spasms in the injured muscles and potentially the adjacent muscles.
  • Stiff neck: In addition to feelings of pain, one might acquire a sense of stiffness in the neck, where it becomes difficult to move. This  is the body’s natural response to a strain, which swells and tightens muscles to guard against further injury.

 

Do I Need to Go to a Doctor If I Think I Strained My Neck?

Most neck pain will gradually recover itself in time and does not require medical treatment. However, if you experience severe neck pain as a result of an injury, such as a collision or fall,  seek immediate medical care. Additionally, contact a doctor if you experience severe neck pain, or if the pain persists for several days without relief. It’s also important to monitor the pain, and to  access medical care if your neck  pain spreads down your arms and legs, and/or brings on feelings of headache, tingling, numbness, or weakness. 

If you do need to seek medical care, in order to diagnose your neck strain, your doctor will likely examine you through collecting a medical history and conducting a physical examination. In more severe cases,  an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan of the strained region may be necessary. 

Your doctor will likely diagnose your neck strain’s severity using the following system, which commonly used for muscle strains, and prescribe treatment accordingly:

  • Grade I. A mild strain occurs when relatively few muscle fibers partially tear. There is some pain but no noticeable muscle weakness.
  • Grade II. A moderate strain occurs when many muscle fibers are torn and pain is accompanied by muscle weakness.
  • Grade III. A severe strain occurs when the muscle has completely torn. The pain is usually severe and debilitating.

What is Recovery From a Strained Neck Like, and How Can I Prevent One Going Forward?

The vast majority of recovery for neck strains is at home. Most neck strains take a few weeks to completely heal on a muscular level, in general, symptoms tend to go away in less than a week. More severe muscle strains take closer to 12 weeks to heal, but are often a part of more severe injuries and are not typically considered in the same category as regular neck strains. 

Treatment is typically undergone in tiers depending on the severity of the injury. For most, a combination of refraining from strenuous physical activity, ice and heat therapy, and over-the-counter pain medications  helps to quell symptoms and allow the strain to heal relatively quickly. It should be noted that even if the neck strain causes pain during movement, total bed rest or using a neck brace are not typically recommended. They can lead to weaker neck muscles, which may cause a longer recovery period. For more severe neck strains, or if neck strains persist, physical therapy, chiropractic medicine, massage therapy, acupuncture, and prescription medications may be invoked for treatment. 

Once you’ve recovered from a neck strain, how can you prevent getting another one going forward? While they can’t be completely prevented, experts recommend the following:

Stay active. A physically active lifestyle keeps the whole body relatively strong and flexible, including the neck. In addition, regularly performing exercises and stretches that target the neck and core muscles can help improve posture as well.Many neck strains result from poor posture due to de-conditioned neck muscles.

See Neck Exercises for Neck Pain

  • Start new sports or activities slowly. 
  • Take breaks during repetitive motions to allow your muscles to recover.
  • Find the perfect pillow, mattress, and sleep position that causes the least amount of strain on your muscles.
  • Focus on your posture by sitting and standing up straight with shoulders back all day long.

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