Cervical Sprain

ExitCare ImageA cervical sprain is an injury in the neck in which the ligaments are stretched or torn. The ligaments are the tissues that hold the bones of the neck (vertebrae) in place. Cervical sprains can range from very mild to very severe. Most cervical sprains get better in 1 to 3 weeks, but it depends on the cause and extent of the injury. Severe cervical sprains can cause the neck vertebrae to be unstable. This can lead to damage of the spinal cord and can result in serious nervous system problems. Your caregiver will determine whether your cervical sprain is mild or severe.


Severe cervical sprains may be caused by:

  • Contact sport injuries (football, rugby, wrestling, hockey, auto racing, gymnastics, diving, martial arts, boxing).

  • Motor vehicle collisions.

  • Whiplash injuries. This means the neck is forcefully whipped backward and forward.

  • Falls.

Mild cervical sprains may be caused by:

  • Awkward positions, such as cradling a telephone between your ear and shoulder.

  • Sitting in a chair that does not offer proper support.

  • Working at a poorly designed computer station.

  • Activities that require looking up or down for long periods of time.


  • Pain, soreness, stiffness, or a burning sensation in the front, back, or sides of the neck. This discomfort may develop immediately after injury or it may develop slowly and not begin for 24 hours or more after an injury.

  • Pain or tenderness directly in the middle of the back of the neck.

  • Shoulder or upper back pain.

  • Limited ability to move the neck.

  • Headache.

  • Dizziness.

  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the hands or arms.

  • Muscle spasms.

  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing.

  • Tenderness and swelling of the neck.


Most of the time, your caregiver can diagnose this problem by taking your history and doing a physical exam. Your caregiver will ask about any known problems, such as arthritis in the neck or a previous neck injury. X-rays may be taken to find out if there are any other problems, such as problems with the bones of the neck. However, an X-ray often does not reveal the full extent of a cervical sprain. Other tests such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be needed.


Treatment depends on the severity of the cervical sprain. Mild sprains can be treated with rest, keeping the neck in place (immobilization), and pain medicines. Severe cervical sprains need immediate immobilization and an appointment with an orthopedist or neurosurgeon. Several treatment options are available to help with pain, muscle spasms, and other symptoms. Your caregiver may prescribe:

  • Medicines, such as pain relievers, numbing medicines, or muscle relaxants.

  • Physical therapy. This can include stretching exercises, strengthening exercises, and posture training. Exercises and improved posture can help stabilize the neck, strengthen muscles, and help stop symptoms from returning.

  • A neck collar to be worn for short periods of time. Often, these collars are worn for comfort. However, certain collars may be worn to protect the neck and prevent further worsening of a serious cervical sprain.


  • Put ice on the injured area.

  • Put ice in a plastic bag.

  • Place a towel between your skin and the bag.

  • Leave the ice on for 15-20 minutes, 03-04 times a day.

  • Only take over-the-counter or prescription medicines for pain, discomfort, or fever as directed by your caregiver.

  • Keep all follow-up appointments as directed by your caregiver.

  • Keep all physical therapy appointments as directed by your caregiver.

  • If a neck collar is prescribed, wear it as directed by your caregiver.

  • Do not drive while wearing a neck collar.

  • Make any needed adjustments to your work station to promote good posture.

  • Avoid positions and activities that make your symptoms worse.

  • Warm up and stretch before being active to help prevent problems.


  • Your pain is not controlled with medicine.

  • You are unable to decrease your pain medicine over time as planned.

  • Your activity level is not improving as expected.


  • You develop any bleeding, stomach upset, or signs of an allergic reaction to your medicine.

  • Your symptoms get worse.

  • You develop new, unexplained symptoms.

  • You have numbness, tingling, weakness, or paralysis in any part of your body.


  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.