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. Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), will help with pain. 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 and do more 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.