The neck plays one of the most vital roles in the machinations of the human body. It has the important task of bearing the weight of the head, turning the head, and shielding the nerves along the spine; nerves responsible for sending out motor coordination and sensory information from the brain to the rest of the body. When healthy, the neck grants a person a wide range of motion and flexibility, allowing them to see and perform daily activities. However, when even slightly damaged, an injury to the neck can be debilitating.
We use our head for practically every mechanical action, so it should be no surprise that we will all likely experience neck pain, stiffness, and injury over the duration of our lives. With time's passing, the odds of this only increase as the muscles, ligaments, and bones of the neck naturally deteriorate. Because of this, it is essential that you do everything in your power to take preventative measures such as stretching and strengthening in order to keep minor neck pain from turning into serious neck injury.
There are few things more incapacitating and vexing than a neck injury since it can turn typically simple tasks such as driving and sleeping into onerous chores. Below, we will discuss the most common neck injuries and propose some actions you can take to either alleviate or prevent your symptoms of chronic neck pain.
Neck injuries, also referred to as cervical spine injuries, may diverge in the type, area, and severity of the injury. These injuries may arise randomly over time, primarily due to degeneration of the spine, or may result from more clear instances such as:
- Car accidents, especially rear-impact collisions that cause whiplash
- Diving into shallow pools, lakes, or oceans
- Falling objects
- Lifting heavy objects
- Repetitive daily activities
- Sleeping on it wrong
- Working at a computer
- Sports, especially physical sports such as hockey, football, soccer, skiing, and snowboarding
Soft Tissue Neck Injury
Our body is made up of interconnecting bones, joints nerves, and soft tissue. When one of these things gets damaged, it can have a serious impact on the others ability to function since they are no longer working in harmony. Most neck injuries will affect the soft tissue which is composed of:
While painful, damage to soft tissue is much preferable to more structural damage to the spinal cord or nerves.
Most Common Neck Injuries
While these do not account for the underlying reasons behind all neck injuries, they should cover the vast majority of those that frequently crop up.
Whiplash is the most commonly reported and most easily identifiable cause of neck injury since symptoms manifest almost immediately after the incident. Whiplash occurs when the head goes from a rapid state of hyperextension and then precipitously thrusts forward into flexion. Car accidents are the most common cause of whiplash, but it can also result from a ride on a rollercoaster, being tackled, or a fall.
While whiplash itself is not an injury per se, doctors refer to it as an episode, which can lead to a variety of medical diagnoses including:
- Damage joints
- Damaged disc
- Damaged nerves
- Damaged spinal cord
- Herniated disc
While the severity of whiplash will naturally affect the type of injury that develops symptoms of whiplash can include:
- Inability to turn head
- Tingling in the extremities
Symptoms will typically manifest immediately, but they could have a delayed reaction in the 24 to 48 period following a whiplash episode. If such an incident occurs, speak to your doctor immediately and do not do anything to possibly worsen the injury such as heavy lifting, exercising, or pushing through the pain.
Stingers and Burners
Stingers and burners are common contact sports injuries, especially for football players and wrestlers. These are typically short-lived injuries to the brachial plexus - the network of nerves shaped by the lower four cervical nerves (C5, C6, C7, and C8) and first thoracic nerves (T1) - and the spinal nerve root. Such injuries occur when the head and shoulders are made to go in opposite directions rapidly, or when the head is tilted suddenly, which is all too common when trying to tackle an opponent running at full steam. Symptoms include:
- Burning sensation
- Stinging sensation
- Sudden warmness in the area
- Tingling in the extremities
While these symptoms generally fade in a few minutes, repeated action can cause long-term damage to the nerves and spine. If you experience a stinger or burner that does not fade within minutes, it could be the sign of a more serious injury. In such cases, it is critical that you see a doctor before continuing with physical exertions.
Crick in the Neck
A crick in the neck is similar to whiplash in that it is not a medical diagnosis in and of itself, but is an all too common source of neck pain and injury. This type of neck malady is especially frustrating since it seemingly crops up out of nowhere. More often than not, it occurs from either sleeping on it wrong, turning it suddenly or awkwardly while driving, or spending long hours at a computer. The severe pain of this “crick” is usually caused by:
- Disc issues
- Inflammation in the joints
- Muscle knots, aka trigger points
- Muscle spasm
Such an injury will generally last a few days and then fade, but if that does not happen, it may be signs of a deeper underlying issue.
Neck Muscle Strain
Neck strains are injuries to the muscles that support and help move the neck, especially those in the uppermost part of the spine. Symptoms include:
- Inability to lift or turn the head
- Lack of flexibility
- Muscle Spasm
When diagnosing a neck strain, doctors will grade it on a scale of 1 to 4, with one being mild and 4 being severe.
- Grade I – Mild strain to the muscles in the neck, most often can be aided by stretching, massaging, icing, Tylenol, and an anti-inflammatory. While slightly uncomfortable, most daily activities may continue based upon pain tolerance.
- Grade II – Moderate neck strains, like Grade I, only indicate an in injury to the neck muscles and do not point to underlying structural damage. Pain can be managed with the activities mentioned above, and most daily activities can continue.
- Grade III – Serious strains are generally linked to nerve damage as well as muscle injury. These are quite painful and debilitating and will generally be accompanied by weakness and tingling in the extremities. Such strains will typically require bed rest, doctor’s attention, and physical therapy.
- Grade IV – Severe strains are extremely painful and are indicative of a spinal fracture or dislocated vertebra. Such injuries could threaten a person’s ability to walk and perform other motor functions, so it is imperative medical attention is sought out immediately.
Neck Muscle Sprain
Neck sprains are injuries to the ligaments that hold bones together. They can be caused by crashes, falls, repeated stress, or jerking twists that stretch or overload the joints in the spine. Symptoms can include:
- Headache in the back of the head and neck
- Muscle spasms in shoulders
- Pain in shoulders
- Pain that gradually builds in the back of the neck
- Pain that worsens when moving
- Stiffness, specifically neck stiffness
- Tingling in the extremities
On top of these physical symptoms, a neck sprain can cause internal issues such as alterations to mood, inability to concentrate or sleep, or a sore throat. Like strains, a sprain can be graded on a scale of mild, moderate, and severe.
Neck Injuries that Impact the Spinal Cord and Nerves
Neck injuries that alter or impair the nervous system are far more serious than more common soft tissue neck injuries. These nerves can be impaired by a bone or joint contacting, pressuring, or cutting the spinal nerve root or spinal cord.
The discs of the back contain a jelly-like substance known as nucleus pulposus, which helps absorb shock and cushion the bones of the spine. A herniated disc is when this substance leaks out and lands on nerve roots in the spine, causing pain and other symptoms resulting from nerve problems. Such symptoms may include:
- Feeling of electrical shock in the arms
- Pinching sensation
- Shooting pain
- Tingling in extremities
Annular tears, which are tears in the outer layer of the disc, can also lead to herniation as a result of regular, abrupt, or strong stress on the joints of the spine.
Neck fractures are when a break occurs in the cervical bones of the neck as a result of a fall, crash, trauma or degeneration in the spine. The type and severity of a fracture are most commonly affected by the angle of the force of the impact. Symptoms of a neck fracture include:
- Decreased feeling in the arms, legs or body
- Muscle weakness
- Paralysis of the arms or legs.
- Radiating pain from the neck down into the shoulders and arms
While any fracture to the bones in the neck can be considered serious, the most serious of neck fractures will also include dislocation of the vertebra.
Dislocation happens when the ligaments fail, either by injury or degeneration, and the neck bone moves out of alignment from its standard location, thus creating instability within the spine. A moderate dislocation is only partially out of place and may return to its natural alignment on its own. A severe dislocation, also known as a fully displaced or jumped bone, will lock into that new position with the ligaments ruined entirely. Both moderate and severe dislocations can cause damage to the spinal cord and nerves, and require surgery in order to have a chance at functioning normally once more.
Injury to the Spinal Cord
The most type of grave injury that can occur in the neck involved damage to the spinal cord and is typically caused by a fracture or dislocation. If the spinal damage occurs above the third cervical vertebra (C3), it could cause instant death or require a respirator to continue breathing. Spinal cord injuries below the (C3) can result in paralysis or enduring disability. For such life-threatening neck trauma, the type of medical care and the speed at which it is administered could dramatically affect the ramifications of the injury.
Traction for Common Neck Injuries
While injuries to the spinal cord and nerves need to be treated with utmost caution and may often result in surgery, months of bed rest, and physical therapy, soft muscle tissue injuries and more minor injuries can be treated by a variety of means including chiropractic care, stretching, yoga, light weight lifting, and traction.
Cervical traction is an especially useful treatment for minimizing or preventing severe neck pain and injury to the muscles supporting the neck. It involves gradually pulling on the bones of the neck in order to generate space between them that has been naturally minimized over time due to compression, wear and tear, and physical exertion. This gentle stretch reduces pressure on the discs of the neck and creates room, protecting the nerves from being pinched, rubbed, or compressed. Read our blog post, ”How do I loosen my neck muscles?” to learn more.
In the past, neck traction was done manually by a doctor or chiropractor gently pulling on the head and neck with their hands, or via a complicated machine using weights, levers, and pulleys. Today, traction can be done at home with the help of the Neck Hammock. This at-home cervical traction device is perfect for people who regularly experience mild to moderate neck pain, but do not want to spend a fortune going to the doctors. Learn more about cervical traction benefits in our related blog article.
The Neck Hammock is light, portable, and can be hung from just about any door in order to:
- Prevent muscle spasm or cricks
- Realign bones in the neck
- Reduce pain
- Relax tendons, joints, and muscles in the neck
- Stabilize bones in the neck
- Stretch out the neck
- Treat scoliosis
For the more common neck injuries that deal with the muscles and ligaments of the neck, cervical traction via the Neck Hammock is an inexpensive and proven method of pain relief.
NCBI: “Patterns and outcomes of traumatic neck injuries: A population-based observational study” - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4520029/
NCBI: “Whiplash: diagnosis, treatment, and associated injuries” - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684148/
Mayo Clinic – Neck Pain https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/neck-pain/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20375587