What is a Cervical Strain?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Cervical strain is an injury to the muscles in the neck leading to stiffness and pain. Neck injuries can have a number of causes, including trauma and repetitive strain injuries, and they need to be treated to keep the muscles in the neck healthy so the neck stays stable. Care for cervical strain may involve a physician who specializes in spinal care, and can involve weeks or months of recovery, depending on the type of injury involved.

Cervical strain causes neck pain and tension.
Cervical strain causes neck pain and tension.

In a cervical strain, the muscles in the neck are stretched beyond the point they are designed for, tearing and straining the muscle fibers. Compression of the neck muscles can also be involved. The patient's neck usually stiffens and the natural curve of this area of the spine can straighten out because the muscles are weaker. Neck pain and tension are often experienced and patients may feel swelling, tenderness, or heat in the neck.

Car accidents can cause a cervical sprain.
Car accidents can cause a cervical sprain.

Car accidents and falls, both of which cause high speed injuries to the spine, are two common culprits behind cervical strain. Concerns about the spine in car accidents are often very high on the list for first responders and care is taken to evaluate patients for neck and back injuries before moving them. Certain occupations can put patients at risk of chronic injuries caused by holding the neck in an awkward position, and some patients experience sleep-related injuries as a result of sleeping at an odd angle.

Cervical strain may cause the neck muscles to be compressed.
Cervical strain may cause the neck muscles to be compressed.

If a doctor suspects cervical strain, the patient may be X-rayed and given other imaging studies to evaluate the spine and look for signs of inflammation. A physical examination can be conducted as well. Treatment options include resting and wearing a brace to stabilize the neck, gentle physical therapy exercises, and massage to address muscle tension and soreness. A combination of approaches is usually used to address the injury.

Once a patient recovers, a doctor may recommend making changes to sleep and work habits to reduce strain on the neck. This can include using contoured pillows to support the neck during sleep and making adjustments to the work environment to eliminate sources of strain. Changing the layout of an office to make it easier to work without needing to crane or tilt the neck, for example, can be advantageous. In jobs where neck strain is often inevitable, like working as a mechanic, people may be advised to do neck exercises and take frequent breaks to rest and stretch the neck.

Holding the head at odd angles for several hours a day can cause chronic neck strain.
Holding the head at odd angles for several hours a day can cause chronic neck strain.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

ysmina

@alisha-- That's how I strained my neck, while lifting weights. I'm wearing a cervical collar now and I can't do any weightlifting for the next couple of weeks while my neck heals.

discographer

@anamur-- There are different kinds of cervical strain and you can definitely strain your neck from wrong posture. This kind of strain isn't as serious as cervical strain that's commonly referred to as whiplash though. Whiplash is caused by trauma that pulls on the neck muscles and tears them causing serious neck and shoulder pain.

It commonly occurs during car accidents because the force of the hit throws the head and neck back and forth. It's also common in weightlifters, due to the tension the weights apply on the neck muscles.

If your neck pain isn't going away, you should see a doctor to see if you really have a cervical strain. It's highly possible.

serenesurface

Can wrong posture cause cervical strain?

I've been experiencing cervical strain symptoms for the past week. The right side of my neck is stiff and painful. I have difficulty moving my neck and it aches even when I'm still. I think the issue is either my sitting posture while I work or my posture while I sleep.

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