Neck Injury — A List of the Most Common Types

Cervical Spine Problems — Risks, Symptoms, Treatment

Neck injuries — aka cervical spine injuries — come in a variety of types. The possibilities range from mild to severe, and may come about from an accident, trauma or degenerative changes in the cervical spine (neck.)  

Below are the most common neck injuries defined and described.

Before you go through the list, here's something to keep in mind: Damage to one anatomical part in your neck often means damage to others. This is because the parts of your neck are connected. Bones, joints, soft tissue and nerves work together to hold up and move your head. 

As an example, whiplash may result in one or several diagnoses including muscle strain, ligament sprain, and/or disc injury. 

Neck Injuries Affecting Soft Tissue

Human form ruler
sozaijiten/Datacraft/Getty Images

Most of the time, damage from a neck injury is limited to soft tissue. But nearly every type of cervical spine injury, from severe to mild, affects muscles.

Below you can read about the most common neck injuries. Most, if not all, may have an effect on muscles, tendons, and/or ligaments. And, as mentioned above, some will occur in conjunction with the more serious injury types.

Crick in the Neck

Woman stretching her neck
NicolasMcComber/Getty Images

Have you ever awakened with a nasty neck crick? I have news for you: A "crick in the neck" is not a medical diagnosis. Usually, muscle spasm, trigger points, arthritis and/or a disc problem underlie the pain.

Neck cricks are often brought about by simple things. Sleeping with your neck in an awkward position, long hours at the computer and sudden movements of your cervical spine are common culprits.

Most of the time,at-home therapies such as aspirin or Tylenol, reduced activity and gentle movement are all you need to relieve the pain. Waiting it out plays a big role, as well.

If you find that the pain of your crick lingers for longer than a week, or it disrupts your usual activities, it's likely time to see your doctor.

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Muscle Strain

Cradling the phone between head and shoulders is a surefire way to get neck pain.
Cradling the phone between head and shoulders is a surefire way to get neck pain. Elizabeth Young/Getty Images

A strain is an injury to muscles. that move the spine. Symptoms include muscle spasm, reduced flexibility, and pain. To treat a neck muscle strain, consider modifying your activity to a level where your pain is accomodated. Also, taking an over-the-counter pain medication may help. As with a neck crick, if the pain lasts longer than a week, or if it disrupts your usual activities, see your doctor.

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Neck Sprain

Use Red Cross First Aid Guidelines for Neck Injury
Neck sprains are sometimes very serious. Adam

Sprains are injuries to ligaments. (Ligaments are strong bands of connective tissue that hold bones together.)

Neck sprains can be caused by falls or sudden twists that overload or overstretch one or more joints in your cervical spine. Another cause is repeated stress to the joint(s).

Symptoms of a neck sprain include swelling, reduced flexibility and pain.

Sprains can be mild, moderate or severe. If you suspect someone in your environment has a severe neck injury (of any kind), you should immobilize their spine and call 911 immediately. For minor and moderate sprains, rest and ice the area, take an anti-inflammatory and get it checked by a doctor.

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Neck Injuries that may Affect Nerves and/or the Spinal Cord

Cervical spine film
Cervical spine film. CNRI/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Some neck injuries affect or damage the nervous system; these tend to be serious. Information on specific injuries follows below, but in general, neck injuries may put pressure on spinal nerve roots or the spinal cord.

Neck injuries that affect the nervous system are usually more complicated to diagnose, treat and cope with than soft tissue trauma or mild to moderate joint injury. For one thing, diagnosing nerve pain is not always straightforward. Often it's a sign that a spinal structure has been altered in a way that interferes with nerve transmission. Plus, once a nerve (or the spinal cord) is involved, more areas of the body may be affected. 

And an injury to the spinal cord may result in life-long disability, paralysis or even death.

Below are common neck injuries that may include damage to one or more parts of the nervous system.

Whiplash-Whiplash Associated Disorders-WAD

Whiplash
Whiplash. Science Picture Co / Getty Images

Whiplash (acronym: WAD) is a set of symptoms following a movement event in which the head is thrown first into hyperextension and then quickly forward. It's most often due to car accidents, but may be caused by sports injuries, falls or trauma.

Like a crick, WAD is not a medical diagnosis. It's an episode that can lead to a diagnosis such as sprain or strain. Whiplash may also damage joints or discs, which in turn may irritate spinal nerve roots or, more rarely, the spinal cord.

Depending on the exact nature of the injury, symptoms can include pain, weakness, numbness, tingling or other electric-type sensations that go down one arm. Stiffness, dizziness or disturbed sleep are also possible.

Note that symptoms may be delayed a day or two following the whiplash event.

Research suggests that a multi-modal approach to treating whiplash can be effective. This may include heeding your doctor's advice, manual therapy, medication, wearing a collar and/or therapeutic exercise.

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Herniated Disc

Herniated Disc - Picture of a Herniated Disc
Herniated Disc. Adam

A herniated disc occurs when the soft substance that is normally contained to the inside of the disc (called the nucleus pulposus) escapes. Should this jelly-like substance land on a nerve root, which it often does, you'll likely feel pain and/or have nerve-related symptoms. Nerve-related symptoms generally includes weakness, numbness, a burning sensation or electrical shock sensation that go down one arm.

Tears in the tough outer fibers of the disc (called annular tears) may lead to a herniation. Annular tears may be brought on by either repeated or a sudden, forceful stress to the spinal joint. 

Treatment generally starts with medication and physical therapy, but may proceed to surgery as needed.

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Stingers and Burners

Football Players Do Neck Stretches
Football Players Do Neck Stretches. groveb

Stingers and burners (named for the way they feel) are temporary injuries to the nerve root or brachial plexus. They occur most often in football players (especially tacklers) and other contact-sport athletes.

Stingers and burners may be caused either by an abrupt tilt of the head or when the head and shoulder are forced in opposite directions at the same time.

Symptoms include burning, stinging, numbness/weakness, or an electrical sensation down one arm. You may feel a warm sensation along with the other symptoms.

If a stinger or burner is severe or lasts longer than a few minutes, see a doctor. If you are an athlete with stenosis, your risk is higher and your doctor may suggest that you retire from your sport to avoid a catastrophic neck injury.

Neck Fracture

Neck X-Ray Image
Neck X-Ray Image. Steverd

A neck fracture is a break in a cervical bone. It may be caused by trauma, a fall or degenerative changes in the spine. The angle of force at impact often determines the type and severity of the break.

Football players who block with their head are at high risk for cervical fractures. Elderly people with osteoporosis are also at risk, due to fragile bones.

The most serious neck fractures are generally accompanied by a dislocation (see below).

Treatment depends on a lot of things including your age, other medical conditions, and extent of damage to your spine. If a fracture destabilizes your neck, you may need to wear a halo brace.

Prevention is the best treatment strategy for a neck fracture. If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, get prevention ideas from your doctor or physical therapist.

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Cervical Dislocation

Diagram of a Dislocated Neck Bone
Diagram of a Dislocated Neck Bone. (c) Anne Asher 2010 Licensed to About.com

Dislocation occurs when a neck bone moves out its normal position, creating spinal instability. Either an injury or degenerative changes  disrupt the ligaments that hold the vertebra in place, causing it to separate from the bone below.

When brought on by trauma, a dislocation may be accompanied by fracture.

In the most severe dislocation, the bone is fully displaced forward (called jumping), and it locks in this position. The ligaments rupture completely. Dislocations may damage the spinal cord and/or require surgery.

Less severe forms occur when the bone does not move all the way out, or when only one side fully displaces. Mild dislocations may go back in place on their own, and the soft tissue treated by wearing a collar.

Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal column
Spinal column. MedicalRF.com/Getty Images

A spinal cord injury occurs when a fracture, dislocation or other neck injury damages the spinal cord. If the spinal cord is damaged at the 3rd cervical vertebra or above, the person may die or need a respirator to live.

People living with SCI often endure a lifelong disability with complete or incomplete paralysis below the level of injury.

The timeliness of emergency care and the type of medical treatment given immediately after the injury are especially critical to survival and subsequent quality of life. If someone in your environment has a traumatic incident, you should assume they have a serious or even life-threatening neck injury and follow Red Cross guidelines.

 

Source:

Bussières A. The Treatment of Neck Pain-Associated Disorders and Whiplash-Associated Disorders: A Clinical Practice Guideline. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. Oct. 2016 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27836071

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