Neck Strain

A neck strain causes neck pain and limits your ability to move your head. This can make it difficult for you to go about your daily activities. In this guide, we talk about the symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention of neck strain.

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Juhi Modi Medical Writer
Medically reviewed by 

Symptoms of neck strain
What is the difference between a neck strain and a neck sprain?
Typical causes of neck strain
Treatment and pain relief
Recovery: How long does a neck strain last?
When to see a doctor about your neck pain
Exercise: A simple remedy for neck strain

Your neck supports your head, which weighs about 10 to 12 pounds. The neck also contains several vital structures, such as your windpipe, food pipe, and spinal cord. Your neck is capable of an extensive range of motion in all directions. As a result, your neck is less stable than many other parts of your body. Also, your neck is affected by the movement of nearly every other part of your body. This puts your neck at a high risk of injury. A neck strain is an injury to the muscles and tendons of the neck.1

A mild neck strain may be nothing more than a slight annoyance. However, a moderate to severe neck sprain can cause you considerable pain and other symptoms. You may not be able to perform basic tasks like getting dressed or doing housework. A neck strain can affect your life at home and at work. It can prevent you from enjoying recreational activities.2 Luckily, most neck strains heal with exercise and conservative treatments at home.

In this informative guide, we explore the symptoms and causes of neck strain. We also look at some of the treatments that work. We guide you on how you can prevent neck strains in the future. Last but not least, we introduce you to some physical therapy exercises that can relieve your neck strain symptoms. The Injurymap app shows you how to do each exercise correctly. Please note that this guide has been written for your information only. It is not meant to replace medical advice. Please see a doctor if your neck strain is severe or your pain does not improve with home exercises.

Looking for a solution to neck strain? Try the Injurymap exercise app now.

Symptoms of neck strain

The most common symptom of neck strain is neck pain. The pain is usually localized to the neck. However, it can spread to the surrounding areas such as your head, shoulders, and upper back. Some people with neck strain experience a sharp, stabbing, throbbing pain. Other people describe a persistent dull, achy pain. Neck pain due to strained neck muscles can affect your concentration during the day. It can also disturb your sleep at night. The pain is typically worse when you move your neck.2 Certain activities, like working on a computer, watching TV, or reading may cause a flare-up of neck pain.3

Besides pain, neck strain can cause other symptoms such as muscle spasms, stiffness, and decreased range of motion (inability to fully bend the neck in one or more directions).1,2

What is the difference between a neck strain and a neck sprain?

A strain is an injury to a tissue that contracts and moves, such as a muscle or tendon. Thus, a neck strain is an injury to the neck muscles and tendons. A sprain, on the other hand, is an injury to a non-moving structure. This includes ligaments, cartilages, joint capsules, and nerves. An injury to the neck ligaments is, therefore, called a neck sprain.1

Typical causes of neck strain

Neck strains are usually the result of an injury. A common example is a whiplash injury in which the neck is flung too far forward (hyperflexion) or too far backward (hyperextension). Other types of rotation or compression injuries can also result in soft tissue injury and neck strain. Some of the common causes of neck strain include:1,5

  • Car accidents (whiplash injuries)
  • Occupational injuries due to repetitive neck movements
  • Computer work with a bad posture
  • Tucking a telephone between the ear and shoulder for prolonged periods
  • Sleeping in an awkward position
  • Reading in bed
  • Gritting your teeth

Treatment and pain relief

Experts agree that regular exercise is important when it comes to treating neck pain.7 You can do several stretching and strengthening exercises at home to ease your neck strain and keep the symptoms from coming back. Here are some good exercises for neck strain:

  1. Head rotation with resistance I
    5 reps

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    Head rotation with resistance

    • Keep your head in a neutral position.
    • Put one hand on top of the temple.
    • Use your neck muscles to counter the movement while you attempt to turn your head with your hand.
    • Your head should be kept still and directed forward.
    • Press for 5 seconds to the left and the right, repeat this 5 times.
  2. Sideways neck stretch
    30 sec.

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    Sideways neck stretch

    • Sit on a chair with your back straight.
    • Put one hand on your head to the opposite ear.
    • You should use the other hand to fixate your shoulder by holding onto the edge of the chair.
    • Pull the head straight to one side and notice the stretch on the side of the neck.
    • It should not hurt in the direction that you bend your head.
    • Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat the stretch with your head bent to the opposite side.
  3. Backwards head tilt with resistance I
    5 reps

    This browser does not support the video element.

    Backwards head tilt with resistance

    • Keep your head in a neutral position.
    • Fold your hands and put them at the top of the back of your neck.
    • Push your head against your hands in an attempt to bend your head backwards.
    • Your head should be kept still and directed forward.
    • Press for 5 seconds.
    • Repeat the pressure 5 times.

Recovery: How long does a neck strain last?

Most neck strains take a few weeks to heal. However, you will begin to notice an improvement in your pain in less than a week with stretching and strengthening exercises.1 Please note that a severe neck strain can take up to 12 weeks to heal. This usually occurs in the context of more serious injuries. If you have suffered a severe neck injury, you must consult with a doctor before starting any exercise program.

Preventing neck strains in the future

You can make some simple changes to your daily routine to prevent a neck strain:5,6

  • Maintain a good posture while sitting and standing. Your shoulders should be square in line over your hips. Your ears should be in a straight line above your shoulders.
  • Take frequent breaks from working at your computer or during long car rides. During the break, move around and stretch your neck and shoulders.
  • Ensure your chair, desk, and computer are ergonomically designed (optimized for human use). Your computer monitor should be at eye level. Your arms should be supported by armrests. Your knees should be slightly lower than your hips.
  • Avoid tucking your phone between your ear and shoulder as this puts you at a higher risk of developing a neck strain.
  • Do not carry heavy bags with shoulder straps because this puts a strain on the neck muscles.
  • Sleep in a position where your neck and body are aligned. Use a small pillow to support your neck. Avoid sleeping on your stomach – in this position you twist your neck to one side or the other for hours at a time. Consider placing pillows under your thighs when you’re sleeping on your back – this can prevent neck strain by flattening the spinal muscles.

When to see a doctor about your neck pain

In the majority of cases, a neck strain can be managed at home with exercises and other conservative treatments. However, you should be aware of certain symptoms that warrant a trip to the doctor, such as: 2,5

  • Severe neck pain that continues for several days without relief
  • Numbness and tingling in the shoulders, arms, or hands
  • Weakness in the arms or hands
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Problems with vision
  • Neck instability
  • Difficulty performing fine movements with the fingers
  • Feeling off balance or walking abnormally
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

Exercise: A simple remedy for neck strain

Injuries are a common cause of neck strain. But neck strain is also an increasingly common lifestyle problem. The reason for this increase is that more people are spending long hours in front of computer screens or staring down at their smartphones. These everyday activities can cause the neck muscles to become overstretched and weak. When this is repeated day after day, you end up with a neck strain.6

The body responds to muscle injury with protective spasms. Before you know it, you’re in a lot of discomfort, struggling to perform daily activities. Thankfully, there are simple lifestyle modifications that can help prevent neck strains. And if you already have symptoms of neck pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms, exercises can help relieve your discomfort.

The key to recovering from a neck strain is proper stretching and strengthening of the neck muscles. The Injurymap app has a range of neck and shoulder exercises that you can do in the comfort of your home. The app demonstrates the correct form and technique for each exercise. Start with slow range of motion exercises and work your way up to more intense strengthening exercises. The Injurymap app is your partner in healing from a neck strain and preventing it in the future.

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About the author

Juhi Modi has two decades of experience as a medical writer with varied interests and an enduring passion for health, biology, and science. She uses her educational background in medicine to write science-backed articles for clients around the world.