Your cervical spine, or neck, is formed by seven bones stacked on top of each other with a shock-absorbing disc between each level. Your neck actually quite flexible and also relies on muscles and ligaments for support. "Sprains" and "strains" are quite often the result of these tissues being stretched too hard or too far, much like a rope that frays when it is stretched beyond its normal capacity. The term, "sprain" means that the tough, durable ligaments that hold your bones together have been damaged, while "strain" means that your muscles or tendons that move your neck have been partially torn.
Auto accidents and sports injuries are a very common cause of neck sprains and strains. Other less traumatic and stressful forms of injury such as reaching, pushing, pulling, moving heavy objects and falls can also trigger these problems. Most often, sprains and strains are not caused by a single event but rather from constant and consistent overloading. Tendons and ligaments typically manage small isolated stressors relatively well, but repetitive stressor lead to injury in in a similar way to a constantly bending a piece of copper wire will cause it to break. Examples of these less acute types of cervical sprain/strain injuries include bad posture, poor workstations, repetitive movements, prolonged overhead activity, sedentary lifestyles, improper sleep positions, poor bra support and obesity.
Symptoms from a sprain/strain may start very suddenly but more often form very gradually. Complaints often include a slight pain in the neck that becomes more substantial when you move your head. Rest may relieve your symptoms but also commonly causes stiffness or increased discomfort. The pain is generally centered in the back portion of your neck but is also known to extend to your shoulders or between your shoulder blades. Tension headaches commonly accompany neck injuries. Be sure to inform your physician if you have any symptoms or signs of a more serious injury, including a severe or "different" headache, loss of consciousness, confusion or "fogginess", difficulty concentrating, dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, change in vision, nausea or vomiting, numbness or tingling in your arms or face, weakness or clumsiness in your arms and hands, decreased bowel or bladder control or fever.
Sprain/strain injuries cause your normal healthy elastic tissue to be replaced with less elastic "scar tissue". This can has been known to lead to constant on ongoing pain and in some cases can also result in the patient developing arthritis. Seeking early and appropriate treatment, like the type provided in our office, is critical. Depending upon how severe the injury really is, you may need to limit your activity for awhile- especially movements or activities that cause pain. In general it is best to avoid heavy lifting and take frequent breaks from prolonged activity, particularly overhead activity. Following acute injuries, you can apply ice for 10-15 minutes each hour. Heat may be helpful after several days or for more chronic types of pain. Ask your doctor for specific ice/heat recommendations. In some cases you might be able to find some relief in the form of sports-creams.