Neck or Back Sprain

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Neck or Back Sprain

A neck and back sprain is an injury that overloads or overstretches joints in these areas.  Sprain may be caused by a sudden injury (for example a whiplash) or it can be due to wear and tear over time. 

How Do You Know You Have A Sprain?

Symptoms of sprain includes pain in the back of the neck or low back that gets worse when you move it, plus muscle spasms and stiffness.  You may also find that you are fatigued or even irritable.

 In the case of neck sprain, symptoms can include headaches, sore throat, or numbness and/or weakness in your arms or hands. 

Pain from a sprain does not necessarily come on fully in the beginning.  In other words, you may not feel the worst of your symptoms until the day after the inciting incident.

Degrees of Sprains

Sprains, (as well as strains) are measured in degrees. First-degree sprains are minor, and the best thing to do for them initially is RICE: Rest, ice, elevation and compression. (If you sprain your back, try icing the area and resting.) Aspirin or other types of NSAIDs may help as well. The goal in the first few days of a sprain to control inflammation.

At the other end of the spectrum, third-degree sprains involve complete rupture of all the fibers of a ligament. Third-degree sprains are serious injuries, and can cause a lot of pain and inflammation, as well as instability of the joint.

If pain is persistent or severe, consult a health care professional.  If you or someone else has suffered a serious neck injury, seek immediate medical attention.

Related: First Aid for Serious Neck Injuries

Healing a Sprain

Recovering from a sprain generally involves:

  • Giving it time. Symptoms tend to go away in about a month to 6 weeks, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, although they say it can take longer than that for the sprain to be completely healed.
  • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling. 
  • Ask your doctor about muscle relaxers if you have a lot of spasm.
  • Discuss the possibility of wearing a neck collar with your doctor (if you've sprained your neck.)
  • Ice the area a few times per day for the first couple of days.
  • Gentle exercise.  
  • Get physical therapy.  A therapist can create an exercise program tailored to your injury and may also give you other treatments such as ultrasound or traction.

If you've sprained your neck or back you might want to approach the injury with a "get on with it" attitude.  Ferrari, in his study entitled, "Effect of a pain diary use on recovery from acute low back (lumbar) sprain," which was published in the journal Rheumatology International, found that when patients with low back sprain kept a pain dairy (which is something many doctors ask their spine patients to do) the recovery actually took longer.  In the study, the author reported that other research studies found the same to be true for patients who had sprained their necks.


American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Neck Sprain. AAOS Website. Last Reviewed: December 2013.

Ferrari, R. Effect of a pain diary use on recovery from acute low back (lumbar) sprain. Rheumatol Int. 2015 Jan;35(1):55-9. doi: 10.1007/s00296-014-3082-3. Epub 2014 Jul 2.

Magee, D.J. Orthopedic Physical Assessment. 4th edition. Saunders Elsevier. 2006. St. Louis, Mo.

Mosby's Medical Dictionary. 7th edition. 2006. Mosby Elsevier. St. Louis, Mo.

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