We have changed our visitation policy for the safety of our patients and staff. Click here for the updated visitation policy and click here for information about COVID-19.

Lahey Health is now part of Beth Israel Lahey Health


A neck sprain is stretching or tearing of the ligaments of the neck. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that cross joints and link bones to each other. They help make joints like the neck stable.


Ligaments stretch as joints move. A sprain happens when a force makes them stretch more than they should. This can be from an accident or trauma. Some forces can cause tears.

Cervical Spine (Neck)
Cervical Spine
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

Factors that may raise your chance of getting a neck sprain are:

  • Being in a car crash
  • A blow to the head
  • Contact sports
  • A hard fall
  • Jobs that put you at risk for severe falls or car crashes


Neck sprains may cause:

  • Neck pain that gets worse with movement, especially in the back of the neck
  • Shoulder pain and muscle spasms
  • A tingling tingling or weak feeling in the arms
  • Headache, especially in the back of the head
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Irritability
  • Stiffness and difficulty moving the head in one or more direction


You will be asked about your symptoms, health history, and how you hurt your neck. A physical exam will be done. Your neck will be checked to look for any nerve damage.

Pictures may be needed of your neck. This can be done with:

Neck sprains are graded based on the amount of injury:

  • Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of ligaments
  • Grade 2—Partial tearing of ligaments
  • Grade 3—Complete tearing of ligaments


Treatment includes:

Acute Care


Strict rest is rarely needed. The neck can be moved as long as it does not make pain worse.

Ice and Heat

Ice may help reduce swelling and pain in the first few days after the injury.

After a couple of days, heat may help loosen tight or injured muscles. Wait for swelling to go away before you use heat.


Medicine can help to reduce pain and swelling. Here are some options:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as aspirin, ibuprofen
  • Topical pain medicine—creams or patches that are put on the skin
  • Prescription pain relievers
  • Muscle relaxers

Note: Aspirin is not advised for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving it to your child.


Therapy may be needed for severe sprains. Here are some methods:

  • Cervical traction—a special method to stretch the neck and reduce muscle spasm
  • Physical therapy—restores flexibility, range of motion , and strength in your neck


Neck sprain is often the cause of a car crash. To help reduce your chance of a neck sprain:

  • Drive carefully.
  • Wear your seatbelt.
  • Wear proper equipment and use proper technique when playing sports.


American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine  http://www.sportsmed.org 

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons  http://www.orthoinfo.org 


Canadian Physiotherapy Association  http://www.physiotherapy.ca 

Health Canada  https://www.canada.ca 


Conlin A, Bhogal S, et al. Treatment of whiplash-associated disorders—part II: Medical and surgical interventions. Pain Research & Management. 2005;10:33-40.

Duane TM, Wilson SP, et al. Canadian cervical spine rule compared with computed tomography: a prospective analysis. J Trauma. 2011;71(2):352-357.

Langevin P, Peloso PM, et al. Botulinum toxin for subacute/chronic neck pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD008626.

Massey T, Derry S, Moore R, McQuay H. Topical NSAIDs for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007402.

Neck sprain. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00410. Updated December 2013. Accessed June 4, 2018.

Teasell RW, McClure JA, et al. A research synthesis of therapeutic interventions for whiplash-associated disorder (WAD): part 2 - interventions for acute WAD. Pain Res Manag. 2010;15(5):295-304.

Revision Information