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How Do You Know if It’s a Neck Sprain or Strain?

By Cristiana , in General , at May 4, 2023

A neck injury can not only be physically painful, but it can change your life in more ways than one. It can prevent you from doing things you love, like playing sports or pushing your body to the gym.

Associated with the neck are many strains and sprains, but knowing the difference between neck sprain vs strain is the key to getting the correct treatment needed.

So what are the main differences?

Causes

The causes of a neck sprain or strain can vary, but some key differences help you distinguish between the two. Neck sprains occur when the structures that connect your bones, like ligaments and tendons, are overstretched or torn. Neck strains happen when your muscles are pulled or torn.

You’ll have to pay attention to your body’s reactions to check if you have a neck sprain or strain. Neck sprains typically cause sharp pain and stiffness when you move your head and neck, and strains cause a throbbing pain with some difficulty in movement.

Both can be accompanied by tenderness, swelling, reduced range of motion, and headaches. If you’re unsure about your feelings, visiting a doctor for an evaluation and diagnosis would be best.

Symptoms

Neck pain symptoms of sprain or strain can vary from mild to severe, depending on the severity of the muscle injury. Generally, both a neck sprain and strain can cause pain, stiffness, or tenderness in the neck. There may also be swelling and bruising in the affected area for a sprain.

With a strain, there may also be a limited range of motion when attempting to move the head in different directions. Additional neck pain symptoms of a sprain include numbness or tingling and shooting pain in the head. Symptoms of a neck strain can be more severe, with joint instability and muscle spasms in the neck and shoulders.

To determine whether the injury is a neck sprain or strain, an X-ray may be taken to assess the level of tissue damage. Seeing a medical professional is essential to receiving the appropriate treatment.

Complications

Certain signs and symptoms can show complications if you’ve experienced a neck sprain or strain. The pain from either can worsen with movement, which can be severe in severe complications. If the neck strain worsens past a few weeks, it may show an underlying medical condition such as a herniated or degenerative disc, neuralgia, or other neurological issues.

It is essential to seek medical attention if pain persists beyond the expected time for symptoms to subside or if the intensity of the pain increases. An MRI or CT scan may be necessary for doctors to properly assess the source of the pain and determine the proper treatment.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for neck sprains or strains include engaging in activities that result in sudden, violent extensions or rotations of the neck. Participating in contact sports, such as football or boxing, or being involved in a car accident, can all result in a neck sprain or strain. Other individual characteristics can also increase one’s risk, including age, as those aged 65 and over have a higher risk of neck pain than younger people.

Other risk factors include smoking, having a sedentary lifestyle, and a history of neck injuries or disorders. If a person notices any symptoms of pain, stiffness, or difficulty turning the head or neck, mainly if the area is swollen or warm to the touch, it may be a sign of a neck sprain or strain. It is, therefore, essential to seek medical attention from a qualified professional as soon as possible to properly diagnose the issue and provide an appropriate course of treatment.

Prevention

If you are experiencing neck pain, it is crucial to determine whether your neck is sprained or strained to choose suitable preventative measures. The neck ligaments can get overextended or torn, which leads to a sprain. At the same time, a neck strain is brought on by overstretching or tearing of the neck’s muscles or tendons.

A neck sprain or strain can be prevented by:

  • Engaging in regular stretching and exercise
  • Maintaining good posture
  • Avoiding overstretching and overuse of muscles

Diagnosis

One of the first steps in diagnosing types of neck pain is for the doctor to examine the patient thoroughly. The doctor will likely check the range of motion of the patient’s neck and ask questions about the patient’s level of pain or stiffness. A medical history may also be taken, and imaging tests, such as X-rays and MRIs, may be run to better understand the patient’s condition and determine if a sprain or strain has occurred.

Treatment

Treatment for neck strain versus sprain depends on the severity of the injury. If the injury is a strain, you may be prescribed a muscle relaxant and advised to apply ice and heat therapy. If the injury is a sprain, you may be prescribed a supportive neck brace and advised to use cold therapy with a neck wrap filled with ice.

Generally, bed rest is recommended for both neck strains and sprains. Avoiding strenuous activities is often recommended to promote healing. You could also visit a chiropractor as a treatment for neck pain.

Moreover, proper stretching exercises for neck pain can often prevent neck straining and spraining injuries. A doctor may administer medication or suggest acupuncture or physical therapy in severe neck pain cases. A neck brace or immobilization device may also need to be worn to stabilize the neck until the injury heals.

Know the Difference Between Neck Sprain vs Strain

If you experience neck pain, seeking timely medical help is essential, as it may be an external symptom of a more serious internal injury or illness. Of course, you should always take neck pain seriously, but it’s best to consult a physician if you need clarification on between neck sprain vs strain. Together, you can determine the best course of action for treatment.

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