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A neck sprain is stretching or tearing of the ligaments of the neck. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that cross joints and connect bones to each other. They help stabilize joints, including the neck.


Ligaments normally stretch as the joints move. A sprain is caused by a force that makes a ligament stretch farther than it should. The force is usually the result of an accident or trauma. Some forces can cause tears in the ligament tissue.

Cervical Spine (Neck)

Cervical Spine

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Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of getting a neck sprain include:

  • Being in a car accident
  • Assaults with a blow to the head
  • Sporting events that include full contact at high velocity
  • Hard fall
  • Occupations that put you at risk for severe falls or car accidents

Neck sprain may cause:

  • Neck pain that gets worse with movement, especially in the back of the neck
  • Shoulder pain and muscle spasms
  • Tingling sensations or weakness in the arms
  • Headache, especially in the back of the head
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Stiffness and difficulty moving the head in 1 or more direction

You will be asked about your symptoms, medical history, and how you injured your neck. A physical exam will be done. The stability of your neck will be checked to look for any nerve damage.

Images may be needed of your neck. This can be done with:

Neck sprains are graded according to the amount of injury:

  • Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of ligaments
  • Grade 2—Partial tearing of ligaments
  • Grade 3—Complete tearing of ligaments

Treatment includes:

Acute Care

Strict rest is rarely necessary. The neck can be moved as long as it does not increase pain.

Ice and Heat

Ice may help decrease swelling and pain in the first few days after the injury.

After a couple of days, heat may help loosen tight or injured muscles. Wait for swelling to go away before using heat therapy.


Medication can help to relieve discomfort and swelling. Medications may include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen
  • Topical pain medication—creams or patches that are applied to the skin
  • Prescription pain relievers
  • Muscle relaxants

Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.


Therapy may be needed for severe sprains. Some therapeutic methods include:

  • Cervical traction—a special technique to stretch the neck and reduce muscle spasm
  • Physical therapy—restores flexibility, range of motion , and strength in your neck

Neck sprain is often the cause of an accident. To help reduce your chance of a neck sprain:

  • Drive carefully to avoid car accidents.
  • Wear your seat/shoulder belt.
  • Wear proper equipment and use proper technique when playing sports.


American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons


Canadian Physiotherapy Association

Health Canada


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Duane TM, Wilson SP, et al. Canadian cervical spine rule compared with computed tomography: a prospective analysis. J Trauma. 2011;71(2):352-357.

Langevin P, Peloso PM, et al. Botulinum toxin for subacute/chronic neck pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD008626.

Neck sprain. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: Updated December 2013. Accessed May 11, 2016

Teasell RW, McClure JA, et al. A research synthesis of therapeutic interventions for whiplash-associated disorder (WAD): part 2 - interventions for acute WAD. Pain Res Manag. 2010;15(5):295-304.

1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Massey T, Derry S, Moore R, McQuay H. Topical NSAIDs for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007402.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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