The seven bones of the spinal column in your neck (cervical vertebrae) are connected to each other by ligaments and muscles—strong bands of tissue that act like thick rubber bands. A sprain (stretch) or tear can occur in one or more of these soft tissues when a sudden movement, such as a motor vehicle collision or a hard fall, causes the neck to bend to an extreme position.
A person with a neck sprain may experience a wide range of possible symptoms, including:
Pain, especially in the back of the neck, that worsens with movement
Pain that peaks a day or so after the injury, instead of immediately
Muscle spasms and pain in the upper shoulder
Headache in the back of the head
Increased irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating
Numbness in the arm or hand
Neck stiffness or decreased range of motion (side to side, up and down, circular)
Tingling or weakness in the arms
Some symptoms may indicate a more serious neck injury. You should seek immediate medical attention if you have neck pain that is:
Consistent and persistent
Accompanied by pain that radiates down the arms and legs
Accompanied by a headache and numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms and legs
To diagnose a neck sprain, your doctor will perform a comprehensive physical examination. During the examination, your doctor will ask you how the injury occurred, measure the range of motion of your neck, and check for any point tenderness.
X-rays. X-rays provide images of dense structures, such as bone. A neck sprain cannot be seen on x-ray since it involves soft tissues (muscles and ligaments), but your doctor may order one to help rule out other, more serious, sources of neck pain—such as a spinal fracture, dislocation, or arthritis.
Other imaging studies. In certain cases, a computerized tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be ordered to provide your doctor with more information about your injury.