Sharp Neck Pain Could Be a Strain or a Sprain

Neck pain is one of the common problems. It can be caused by an injury, pinched nerve, or poor posture due to leaning over work desk, computer or mobile phone. However, a strain or a sprain are the commonly observed reasons of neck pain.

Neck Strain

This occurs when fibers in a muscle or tendon that support and move the head & neck stretches and tears. The intensity of the pain varies with the size of the tear as well as its location.

As the neck is capable of an extensive range of movement, it is very susceptible to injury. This also makes it less stable than other joints of the body. Many important structures pass through the neck, including the main blood vessels, the trachea or the wind-pipe and important spinal and cranial nerves. These aren’t usually damaged in a neck sprain or a strain.

Neck Sprain

A neck sprain is different from a strain that affects ligaments rather than muscles. Ligaments are band like structures that hold the bones together at the joints. It provides support to the joints and holds them in place, preventing the bones from getting displaced during movement. It may be caused spontaneously or might occur after a sudden impact with an object.

Common causes of Neck Strain or Sprain

  • Poor posture/ hunching over/ awkward position while awake or during sleep.
  • Occupation requiring repetitive or prolonged neck extension
  • Lifting something heavy
  • Fall, injury, accident (specially whip-lash injury that occurs after collusion, as in a car crash or a road traffic accident)

Signs and Symptoms

  • Pain can be sharp or throbbing, or may worsen with movement. It may also be felt in the surrounding areas like the back of the head, shoulders or upper back
  • Inability to perform day-to-day activities or limitation of movement
  • Neck stiffness
  • Muscle spasm

When You Shouldn’t Ignore It?

You must pay attention if any of the following happens:

  • Neck pain gets more severe
  • Pain does not improve with home remedies and rest
  • Severe pain at night
  • Persistent neck muscle spasms
  • Pain that affects daily activities and quality of life

When to Consult Your Doctor?

Following are few symptoms that indicate a serious problem:

  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Tingling, numbness
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Visual disturbances
  • Poor balance
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Headache, dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Pain or difficulty in swallowing
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

These symptoms usually occur after a severe neck injury, as in a car accident, and require a visit to the health care professional for appropriate treatment.

Reaching a Diagnosis

Diagnosis is reached after a thorough history taking and a physical examination by the medical professional. While taking history, the doctor may ask question like how and when the pain started, for how long it has persisted and some other related information. In a physical examination, the doctor may inspect, palpate and auscultate (if necessary) to focus towards a diagnosis. He will check the range of motion, muscle strength, reflexes and check for sensations. Some diagnostic tests may be needed if the underlying cause is serious and further investigation is warranted. These include an X-ray, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT (computed tomography) scan.

Home Remedies for Neck Strain or Sprain

Following remedies work if the neck pain is not too severe and did not occur due to a serious injury:

  • Bed rest
  • Cervical collar if advised
  • Heat or cold fomentation in the area with the pain
  • Change of posture while at work or during sleep
  • Sleep with a rolled up towel under the neck
  • Exercises to improve posture
  • Activity modification

Other Treatment Options

  • Physical therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Manual manipulation
  • Acupuncture
  • Prescription drugs (muscle relaxants may be given in case of a neck sprain)

If the neck strain is due to a serious condition like a car accident or a sports injury, more specialized care may be needed and it might take longer to heal.

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