Neck Sprain Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment

Mar 21, 2022

Neck Sprain Symptoms, Causes, & TreatmentWhen we think of a sprain, the first body part that comes to mind is the ankle. However, a sprain can happen anywhere that there are ligaments connected to joints in the body. You could sprain your knees, your elbows, or even your wrists. With this in mind, it’s not entirely unsurprising to hear that you could sprain your neck, too. Here at AICA Marietta, we hope to provide education on what a neck sprain feels like, what it can do, and neck pain treatment in such a delicate part of the body.

Sprains in General

Since it may come as a surprise to hear that you can sprain anything besides your ankle, it’s important to establish first and foremost what a sprain is. When a ligament is strained or torn, it is known as a sprain. A ligament is a strong, rope-like band of tissue that joins different tissues and bones together. They can hold muscle to bone, muscle to muscle, bone to bone, and some even hold organs in place. However, when speaking of sprains, only the ones that connect tissues surrounding joints are accounted for.

If you have a sprain, one or more ligaments may be affected, and they can also be affected to varying degrees. Depending on which degree of sprain you have, you may need to treat it differently, and you may be unable to function as normal for longer periods of time. It should also be noted that, though the terms “sprain” and “strain” are often used interchangeably, they are two different injuries. A strain can occur in muscles or tendons, while a sprain is strictly ligament-related.

Symptoms of Sprains

The signs and symptoms of a sprain will vary greatly depending on the affected area and the severity of the sprain. The general symptoms of a sprain are pain, swelling, bruising, instability, and loss of mobility in the joint. Sprains are graded on three degrees, with the aftermath ranging from a bit of soreness to a trip to the ER.

First Degree

Also known as a “grade one” or “mild” sprain, first-degree sprains occur when the ligament is stretched beyond its limits but not broken. The affected area will be tender and swollen, but the range of motion shouldn’t be too impaired. Recovery time is typically around one to two days.

Second Degree

Also known as a “grade two” or “moderate” sprain, second-degree sprains occur when there is some tearing in the affected ligaments, but nothing that completely severs them. The affected area may feel more unstable than normal, and it will be very painful to use and touch. Recovery time is generally a few weeks.

Third Degree

Also known as a “grade three” or “severe” sprain, a third-degree sprain occurs when the ligaments are completely torn apart. The affected area will completely lose stability and be incredibly painful to the point of immobility. The symptoms may appear identical to a broken bone and, as such, require immediate medical attention. Recovery time can be over a month.

Complications of Sprains

Generally, a sprain will not leave any lasting complications if treated properly. However, due to the general perception of sprains as universally minor injuries, they’re often poorly treated or left untreated entirely, especially in lower grades. When left untreated, chronic pain, instability, and stiffness in the affected area can occur.

Neck Sprains

A neck sprain is just that: a sprain of the neck. Also referred to as a cervical sprain, sprains in this area are commonly associated with whiplash and tend to occur most often following a car crash. Considering the symptoms of a general sprain, even a mild sprain of the neck can make living your life incredibly difficult. The pain and tenderness will feel exacerbated, and the resulting swelling and stiffness will make it hard to do tasks as simple as looking around.
These sprains also carry darker implications for the surrounding structures, as the area of instability is the same area that can contain the base of the spinal cord, the brain stem, the trachea, the esophagus, and two major arteries. A sprain in this area of the body should be treated with even more care than a normal sprain in order to lessen the likelihood of any further injuries or future complications.

Specific Symptoms of Neck Sprains

Due to the location, a neck sprain may have some unique symptoms. There will be pain, of course, but it’s more than likely going to be localized in the back of the neck, along the spine. Delayed onset neck pain is another thing to keep an eye out for. This term refers to the chance that pain from your injury may not manifest for a day or two following the incident. In cases like these, it’s more likely that you’ll notice it one or two days later. This is a major part of why it’s recommended that car accident injury victims refrain from refusing medical help, especially in the first two days following a wreck, even if they insist that they feel fine and have no complications.

Neck sprains are also frequently accompanied by muscle spasms in the upper shoulder area. Although they could appear to be inherently negative at first glance, these muscle spasms are actually the body’s way of defending itself against additional trauma or intense pain. Neck sprains are also often accompanied by headaches that are centered at the back of the head. A sore throat, irritability, exhaustion, sleep and concentration difficulties, as well as swelling in the neck and shoulders are also all possible symptoms.

Following a neck sprain, you might also notice numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arm or hand. These are symptoms of radiculopathy, which develops when a surrounding structure irritates or compresses a spinal nerve root. Herniated discs or spinal stenosis are frequently, but not always, the cause of irritated spinal nerve roots. In the case of a neck sprain, this irritation may be caused by the injury itself or by the swelling that follows.

How to Treat a Neck Sprain at Home

Fortunately, a sprain is a sprain, and sprains tend to have similar treatments. Unless your sprain is third degree, accompanied by symptoms that concern you, or a result of a car accident, there is generally no need to visit the ER over a sprained neck.

When it comes to the immediate treatment of sprains, you may be familiar with the R.I.C.E method. If not, it’s rather simple and refers to the four steps you can take to treat a neck sprain at home. R.I.C.E is an acronym standing for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.


Your body’s clearest indication that something is amiss is pain. Cease your activity as soon as you’re hurt and rest as much as possible for the first two days. Don’t try to live by the maxim “no pain, no gain.” When dealing with some ailments, such as a moderate to severe ankle sprain, doing so can exacerbate the problem and postpone your recovery. For the next 24 to 48 hours, doctors recommend not putting any weight on the afflicted area. Resting also aids in the prevention of additional bruising around the affected area.


Ice is a tried-and-true method of relieving swelling and pain. During the first 24 to 48 hours following your accident, apply an ice pack for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours (wrapped with a lightweight, absorbent cloth to avoid frostbite). What if you don’t have an ice pack on hand? Frozen peas or corn will suffice. If this brought back any pleasant childhood memories for you, then you’re welcome.

While ice can help to reduce the swelling, heat can help to promote blood flow to the joint once the swelling has subsided. This will aid in the delivery of critical nutrients to the area as well as the removal of cell waste, allowing for a faster recovery. Wrap a moist towel around a hot pack to keep it warm. Apply it to the sprained joint after covering it with a dry cloth to prevent skin burns. Apply to the affected area for 15-20 minutes. Repeat 4-5 times each day or as needed.


For most sprains in various areas of the body, you can apply a compressive, elastic medical bandage to the damaged area (like an ACE bandage) to prevent further swelling. It should be snug but not too tight; too tight and blood flow will be disrupted. However, this isn’t really possible for a neck sprain, so this aspect of at-home treatment should be left out if your sprain is in your neck. Utilize the other treatment options and ask your doctor about other methods of pain management.


Typically, this step isn’t too much of a problem for neck sprains. However, for the sake of clarity and efficacy, this step entails elevating the painful body part above your heart’s level. Pain, throbbing, and swelling are all reduced as a result of doing so. This isn’t normally a problem because keeping the neck elevated is generally comfortable. Even if you’re not currently icing the affected region, the CDC suggests that you keep it elevated as much as possible.

Other At-Home Treatment Options

The main priority when it comes to treating a sprain is reducing the swelling. Therefore, to relieve pain and minimize swelling after a sprain, you can use an anti-inflammatory pain reliever such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Take ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) directly following the injury to aid with the pain while your sprain heals. No matter how intense your pain is, always follow the dosage instructions. Anti-inflammatory pain medicines are also available as topical creams or patches that can be applied directly to the sprain for localized pain relief. For those who are averse to taking medications, the swelling can also be treated with natural herbs and spices. Ginger, turmeric, chili pepper, and green tea are all good options.

Clinical Treatment for a Neck Sprain

If you feel the need to visit a doctor for a neck sprain, they’re going to want to make sure it’s not something worse first. The process of diagnosing a neck sprain is rather simple, and it begins with a visit to a spine specialist, such as a spinal orthopedist or a chiropractor. They’ll then consult you about your symptoms and perform some physical exams to see if you have any muscle weakness or limited range of motion in your neck. They’ll have a decent sense of where your discomfort is coming from and what’s causing it, but an imaging test may be ordered just to be sure. Imaging tests aren’t always necessary, but they can be beneficial if your doctor suspects you’re suffering from another injury, such as a cervical fracture or a herniated disc.

Surgery may be required to heal a sprain based on the ligament affected and the degree of the sprain, and that likelihood increases with neck sprains. If a surgery consultation is suggested, they will assess the injury, explore its potential for healing both with and without surgery, and provide recommendations for the optimal recovery based on your age, amount of activity, and surgical risk factors.

Conservative Treatment Methods

Even in cases where medical attention is needed, the majority of neck sprains can be treated using conservative methods. If you’re having difficulties keeping your neck steady, you can use a neck collar to immobilize it and relieve some of the strain on your neck muscles. You can do this while working, eating, or simply relaxing. However, wearing a neck collar for more than three to four hours at a time can weaken your neck muscles, so don’t overdo it. Always consult your doctor before wearing a neck collar because, depending on your specific situation and the intensity of the sprain, they may find it unnecessary or advise against it.

In some cases, Marietta chiropractic treatment for long-lasting neck pain relief is an option. They specialize in spine and neck pain treatment, so this only makes sense.  Physical therapy may also be utilized to alleviate the pain of a sprain, especially in the later stages of recovery.

If you’ve suffered a neck sprain, consider scheduling an appointment at AICA Marietta. Our team of specialists will be able to create a treatment plan based on your particular case, and you can be sure that we’ll work hard to get your head on straight again.