The cervical spine (neck) is the most flexible segment of the spine. It bears the weight of the head and allows significant amount of movement. The spinal muscles, tendons, and ligaments work together to maintain the stability of the spine. Neck strains and sprains are the most common causes of neck pain. A strain refers to the stretching or tear of a muscle or tendon (tissue that connects muscles to bone) while a sprain refers to the stretching or tear of a ligament (tissue that connect adjacent bones). Neck sprains and strains often result from excessive physical stress on the neck, such as heavy lifting or a fall.
Whiplash, also referred to as hyperextension and hyperflexion injury, is a common type of sprain injury of the neck. It is a soft tissue injury to the neck, usually caused by a sudden forceful jerk commonly occurring as a result of an automobile accident, sports injury or an accidental fall. Other causes of neck sprain and strain include poor posture, head injury, inadequate warm up before exercise, and sports-related injuries.
Symptoms may arise abruptly or may develop after a few hours or even days after the initial injury and are usually aggravated by movement. Neck pain may be either a dull constant pain or a sudden sharp pain that may radiate to the shoulders, upper back, and arms. Apart from pain patients may also experience muscle spasms, stiff neck, and swelling and tenderness over the involved region. Neck pain may also be associated with headache, dizziness, jaw pain, ringing sensation in the ears, and rarely bowel or bladder problems.
An accurate diagnosis and an effective treatment plan are required for a successful outcome. Your doctor will arrive at a diagnosis and determine the cause of pain based on your medical history and the physical and neurological examination findings. Your doctor will also test your reflexes, muscle strength, and sensory perception. Diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays and MRI scans may be required to confirm the diagnosis and to rule out a spinal fracture. Electromyography (EMG) may also be done to reveal any muscle dysfunction.
Neck sprains and strains are commonly managed with non-surgical treatment without the need of a surgery. The non-surgical treatment options include activity modification, ice application, anti-inflammatory and pain medications, muscle relaxants, bracing, physical therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture. To enhance the success of your treatment, your doctor may combine two or more treatment modalities.