Neck sprain

Sprains to the neck are usually caused by injury to the muscles and ligaments. This causes pain which is felt in the back of the neck and may extend down towards one or both shoulder blades. The pain may develop immediately, or may come on a few hours after the injury has occurred.

The pain usually gets worse in the first 48 hours after the injury, and then gradually gets better over a period of a few days to a few weeks. 

Other symptoms which occur include:

  • headache and dizziness
  • depression and tiredness
  • backache
  • aching in the arms
  • cracking sounds in the neck

If your neck sprain was caused by a road traffic collision you may experience one or more of the following:

  • feeling irritable, tearful, emotional and easily upset
  • loss of drive, reduced concentration and forgetfulness
  • feeling anxious about driving and other traffic
  • flashbacks and memories which may upset you

How should I care for my neck?

You will have already been advised by the doctor or nurse practitioner who examined you, which are the most suitable painkillers for you to take. In general, this will be either paracetamol or ibuprofen, or a combination of both.

It is recommended that you take the painkillers regularly, and until the pain starts to settle down.

What should I do about strenuous activity?

You are strongly encouraged to gently keep your neck moving and stay active. 

However, you are advised to avoid heavy work and lifting.

This includes carrying heavy shopping bags. House work is also considered to be heavy work, particularly ironing and hoovering.

What about warm and cold (ice) packs?

Warmth is comforting and can help relax muscle spasms  - such as having warm baths, taking warm showers and wearing warm clothes when outside. 

A warm water bottle or heat pad may also be used, but take care that these are not too hot as they may cause burns.

If you prefer, in the first 72 hours (3 days) you can try placing an ice pack on the tender area for 25 to 30 minutes at a time. A simple ice pack can be made from a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel.

Is it safe for me to drive with a neck sprain?

You are advised not to drive until you can comfortably turn your head to look behind, to use the mirrors. Do not drive until you feel safe to do so.

Is there any specific exercises I should do?

These gentle exercises are good for you – they improve mobility and help aid recovery.  They may be a bit sore to start with but should gradually get easier.

  1. Look up to the ceiling and down to the floor.
  2. Turn your head slowly to look over you right shoulder and then repeat to the left shoulder.
  3. Tilt your head slowly to move your right ear down towards your right shoulder and repeat on the left.

Shoulder exercises

Whilst sitting down, gently lift one arm forwards to above the head and then gently lower it. 

Repeat with the other arm.

Repeat each exercise 5  to 10 times. Try to do the exercises every 2 hours - about 6 times a day.

If the exercises are causing excessive pain or other symptoms (such as pins and needles, numbness or weakness in your arms or hands), stop doing them and seek medical attention.

Do I need a follow-up appointment?

You may be referred for physiotherapy, but this is not always necessary. 

Following the self-care instructions should help regain full recovery in most cases and prevent any long term problems.

Is there anything I should look out for?

You should seek medical attention if you have any of the following:

  • new numbness or weakness to your arms
  • difficulty balancing or walking

Reviewed by Dr T Shaw in October 2022, next review in October 2024. 

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