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Neck Sprains and Strains

Neck sprains and strains are extremely common, especially after a car accident (whiplash). Though similar symptomatically, they are different in the soft tissues they affect. Stiffness, dull and throbbing pain in the shoulder muscle, and difficulty moving are all hallmark symptoms of neck sprain and strain.



Most minor occurrences of sprain or strain will heal by themselves within one or two days. However, if the pain persists longer than this, or is accompanied by numbness or arm pain, it is crucial to consult a physician. Also, if the pain began after some kind injury or accident, it is wise to consult a clinician for a full examination.

Symptoms of a cervical sprain or strain may be similar to other spinal disorders. An accurate diagnosis by a physician with expertise in spinal disorders is the most important first step in finding safe, effective treatment. The doctors at the Ainsworth Institute of Pain Management are experts in treating neck strains and sprains. If you are suffering from neck pain call for an appointment today.

What’s the Difference Between Sprain and Strain?

Neck Pain Neck Sprains Neck Strains Neck Sprains and StrainsNeck strains and sprains are similar in as much as they can cause severe pain and be potentially disabling. They are different, however, in terms of the soft tissue they affect.

A neck STRAIN is an injury to a tendon or muscle caused by overuse or trauma.
A neck SPRAIN is an injury to a ligament caused by overuse or trauma.
Whiplash (technically a hyperextension and hyperflexion injury) is a common form of SPRAIN. Muscle pain that develops from repeated cradling the phone between the ear and shoulder is an example of a STRAIN.

What are the Symptoms?

Neck sprains and strains can produce similar symptoms. Typical symptoms include:

 Varying degrees of pain; mild to intense
 Sharp, dull, throbbing, and/or burning pain
 Stiffness, difficulty moving the neck or upper body

In addition to the above, whiplash (a sprain) symptoms may include:
Jaw pain (immediate or delayed)
Ringing in the ears

What are the Causes?

Neck Pain Neck Strains Neck Sprains Neck Sprains and StrainsSome of the more common causes of neck sprains and strains are forceful injury, too much time in the same position while working, poor or awkward posture while working or lifting, and poor or awkward posture while sleeping. Other less common causes include:

Injury to the bones, joints, or ligaments
Degenerative changes in the spine
Herniated disc
Vertebral compression fracture
Medical conditions such as arthritis, migraine headaches
Narrowing of the spinal canal (e.g., spinal stenosis)
Infection (e.g., meningitis, mononucleosis)
Disease (e.g., cancer)

How are Neck Sprains and Strains Diagnosed?

Neck Pain Neck Strains Neck Sprains Neck Sprains and Strains WhiplashThe diagnosis of a neck strain or sprain should be made by a physician with expertise in spinal conditions. The diagnosis may include these steps.

Medical history – The doctor inquires about symptoms, their severity, what treatments you have already tried and the results.

Physical examination – The physician will examine you for limitations of movement, balance problems, and pain. The physician will test your reflexes at the extremities and evaluate muscle weakness, loss of sensation, and signs of neurological injury.

Diagnostic tests – X-rays and MRI’s are frequently ordered however  these tests are extremely limited in diagnosing exactly where the pain is coming from.  Medial Branch Blocks are considered the gold-standard in diagnosing certain types of neck pain.

Diagnosing Neck Sprains and Strains

What are my Treatment Options?

Nonoperative Treatment
Many different nonsurgical treatments help relieve neck sprain or strain symptoms. These include:

Medications – A short-term course of medication can be highly effective at relieving pain and muscle spasm.  This may include medications such as an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling and pain, muscle relaxants to calm spasm, and occasionally, narcotic painkillers to alleviate severe pain.

Physical therapy – May include gentle massage, stretching, therapeutic exercise, bracing, or traction to decrease pain and increase function.  As part of physical therapy, patients will be educated in proper posture and body mechanics which can enhance healing and prevent further injury.

Cold/heat therapy – This is typically performed as part of physical therapy and is especially useful during the first 24 to 48 hours of pain onset.

Alternative therapy – There are a variety of treatments that are aimed at allowing the body to heal itself.  They include treatments like acupuncture. 

Bracing – A cervical collar is a short-term treatment to help support tender and painful neck tissues while they heal. A collar can reduce neck and upper back pain by relieving muscle spasm and cervical fatigue.

Interventional Pain Management Treatments
Interventional techniques can be a faster and more definitive method of pain relief – event in the acute phase.  These treatments are useful in the presence of severe pain that has failed conservative medical treatment and/or medication.
Cervical Epidural Steroid Injection – This procedure is considered a very effective treatment for neck pain. It is basically the same treatment a woman will receive during childbirth to eliminate pain.  Under fluoroscopic guidance, your physician will place a small needle into the epidural space and inject a small amount of medication to eliminate the pain.
Transforaminal Epidural Steroid Injection – This procedure is similar to the one above; however, in this case the medication is focused directly onto the nerve fibers that make up the sciatic nerve – the result is more medication delivered to the affected area.
Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) – When the inflammation in and around the affected nerves is too great for an epidural injection, SCS is an excellent and effective treatment option that can eliminate the pain without surgery. In SCS, an electrical pulse is delivered directly to the spine, blocking certain neuron fibers’ access to the brain and consequently the brain’s ability to sense the previously perceived pain. 
Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA)  Radio waves are applied to a nerve, subsequently stunning it and preventing from transmitting pain.

Schedule an Appointment Today

Our doctors at the Ainsworth Institute of Pain Management are experts in using the most cutting edge and advanced methods for treating neck sprains and strains. Call and schedule an appointment today with one of our board-certified pain management doctors and find out what treatment options would best suit your symptoms.