Neck strain is often just called whiplash. Although it’s usually associated with car accidents, any impact or blow that causes your head to jerk forward or backward can cause neck strain. The sudden force stretches and tears the muscles and tendons in your neck.
Neck strain afflicts many amateur and professional athletes. People who play contact sports like football are especially prone to neck strain.
Neck strains are often confused with neck sprains. They’re a bit different. Neck strains are caused by damage to the muscle or the tendons, bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones. Neck sprains are caused by tearing of the ligaments, the tissues that connect the bones to each other.
However, the differences between these strains and sprains probably won’t mean much to you. The causes, symptoms, and treatment of neck sprains and neck strains are usually the same.
What Are the Symptoms of Whiplash?
- The pain of whiplash is often hard to ignore. The symptoms may include:
- Pain, decreased range of motion, and tightness in the neck. The muscles may feel hard or knotted.
- Pain when rocking your head from side to side or backward and forward.
- Pain or stiffness when moving your head to look over each shoulder.
- Headaches at the base of the skull that radiate towards the forehead.
Sometimes, the pain of a neck strain is immediate. In other cases, it can take several hours or days before your neck begins to hurt.
The blow that causes neck strain can sometimes cause a concussion, too. Since concussions can be serious, you need to see a doctor right away. You need emergency medical care if you have a headache that worsens or persists, have weakness or trouble talking, or are confused, dizzy, nauseous, excessively sleepy, or unconscious.
To diagnose neck strain, your doctor will give you a thorough examination. You may also need X-rays, CT (computed tomography) scans, and other tests, to rule out other problems.
What’s the Treatment for Whiplash?
Here’s the good news: given time, whiplash should heal on its own. To help with recovery, you should:
- Ice your neck to reduce pain and swelling as soon as you can after the injury. Do it for 15 minutes every 3-4 hours for 2-3 days. Wrap the ice in a thin towel or cloth to prevent injury to the skin.
- Take painkillers or other drugs, if recommended by your doctor. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), will help with pain and swelling. However, these medicines can have side effects. Never use them regularly unless your doctor specifically says you should. Check with your doctor before taking them if you take other medicines or have any medical problems. If over the counter medications do not work, prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants may be necessary.
- Use a neck brace or collar to add support, if your doctor recommends it. However, they are not recommended for long-term use, because they can actually weaken the muscles in your neck.
- Apply moist heat to your neck – but only after 2-3 days of icing it first. Use heat on your neck only after the initial swelling has gone down. You could use warm, wet towels or take a warm bath.
- Other treatments, like ultrasound and massage, may also help.
When Will My Whiplash Feel Better?
Recovery time depends on how serious your whiplash is. Most cases resolve in a few days. But other neck strains may take weeks or longer to heal. Remember that everyone heals at a different rate.
Once the acute symptoms of neck strain are gone, your doctor will probably want you to start rehabilitation. This will make your neck muscles stronger and more limber. It will help you both recover and reduce the odds of straining your neck again in the future.
You might start with gentle stretching exercises that become more vigorous as you get better. But don’t start exercising without talking to your doctor first.
Whatever you do, don’t rush things. People who play contact sports need to be especially careful that they are fully healed before playing again. Your doctor will clear you to resume your activity when you are ready. Do not try to return to your previous level of physical activity until you can:
- Look over both shoulders without pain or stiffness
- Rock your head all the way forward and all the way back without pain or stiffness
- Rock your head from side to side without pain or stiffness
If you start pushing yourself before your neck strain is healed, you could end up with chronic neck pain and permanent injury.
How Can I Prevent Whiplash?
There’s not much you can do to prevent whiplash caused by an accident, of course. But there are some things you can do to improve your odds:
- Practice strengthening exercises to keep your neck muscles strong and limber, especially if you have had neck strain before.
- People who sit in the same position all day, like office workers, should take regular breaks to stretch and exercise their necks.
Neck Pain From Sleeping Wrong? What You Can Do Right Now
Have you woken with neck pain from sleeping in an awkward position? Often this ache is nothing more than an annoyance, but it can sometimes be extremely painful.
Occasional neck pain from sleeping incorrectly is a common issue.
Deep in sleep, your head can fall into a position that puts unnecessary stress upon your neck muscles. After a bit, your neck may get agitated. Your sleeping brain might do you a solid and command your body to reposition itself so that your neck gets a little relief. Alternatively, you ignore the agitation, exacerbating the strain. As a result, you’ve got a pain in the neck the next morning.
There’s a lot of different things you can do to avoid this sort of neck strain in the future: change your sleeping position, try a new pillow or even, god-forbid… exercise!
But What Can Be Done about the Neck Pain I’m Feeling Right Now?
You’re probably not very interested in exercise right now. You need quick relief! Any of the following tips can go a long way to eliminating that pain in the neck:
Give Your Neck a Rest
Your giant head weighs around 20 lb. That’s a lot of weight that your neck needs to support. Give your muscles a break. If you’ve got some time to spare, lie down. Make sure your head in a neutral position and that you’ve got a comfortable pillow. More rest is often the best remedy even if you just rolled out of bed.
Do Your Best to Avoid Stress
Are you worried that the boss will find out you’ve been stealing from the business for years? Scared of an early death? Forget your problems and watch a movie or read a book! I recommend House of Cards on Netflix.
Ice in Short Increments
It can work well for some, but cooling can aggravate some more serious issues, so If the pain worsens, remove the ice immediately.
Have a Partner Massage the Affected Area
Who doesn’t appreciate a good massage? Neck pain or not, it generally makes life in the moment a little better.
Use a Warm Compress
A warm damp towel (use a microwave to heat it) can help to increases circulation and is often effective in providing relief to stiff muscles. Beware, heat can make inflammation worse, so if your symptoms worsen, remove that heat immediately!
Pop a Few of What Modern Medication Has to Offer.
Aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen can help a lot if the pain isn’t too ridiculous. It should go without saying, but please follow the directions on the packaging.
Stretch the Muscles in Your Neck
It’s always best to warm up muscles before stretching, so it’s advisable to take a hot shower or use a hot compress first. The key with stretching is to not overdo it! Here are 4 of the simpler stretches recommended by WebMD:
- Slowly turn your head to the left. With your left hand, apply very light tension on your chin so that your head turns slightly more. Hold for 20 seconds and return your head slowly to center. Repeat on the right side.
- Tilt your head to the left and try to touch your left ear to your shoulder. With your left hand, apply light pressure on your temple. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the right side.
- Bend your head forward and try to touch your chin to your chest. Relax the shoulders as you do this. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and a pillow under your head and neck for support. Nod your head forward gently, as though you were saying “yes.” Hold the position for 10 seconds and then relax. Repeat 10 times.
Consistent Pain in the Neck?
Remember, these are just temporary solutions to neck pain from sleeping incorrectly! If you had a bad night, try all of the above and hopefully you’ll get some relief. But if you’re experiencing neck pain from sleeping on a consistent basis, do something that addresses the root of the issue(s) rather than just treating the symptoms.
Want a solution to a consistent problem? Let me suggest something easy…
Many times a solution is simply a new pillow. The wrong pillow can exacerbate or even be the cause of your neck pain. A good pillow will keep your spine from bending unnaturally upwards or downwards and provide comfortable, even support for your entire head and neck.