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What is a Cervical Sprain?

By N. Ayers
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A cervical sprain is an injury to ligaments in the neck. This neck injury affects an upper part of the spine, and may be caused by a variety of factors, including motor vehicle accidents and injuries acquired during contact sports. The type of sprain may have different levels of severity. Minor sprains may cause pain and swelling, but may be treatable at home depending on the condition.

A sprain of this type occurs when muscles or joints in the spinal cord stretch beyond their normal limitations due to overextended motion in the neck. This form of stretching causes tension and small tears in the neck muscles or ligaments. Sudden movements such as whiplash, a common occurrence during car accidents, can cause a cervical spine injury.

Participation in contact sports can also increase the risk of suffering from a cervical sprain. Often referred to as sports injuries, these incidents are among the common causes of neck sprain. Some individuals may also experience symptoms as a result of repetitive activities, poor posture while sitting, a fall, or improper lifting. Poor alignment of the spine may place pressure on the nerves, resulting in irritation of this sprain. This causes a variety of symptoms including painful movement, bruising, headaches, muscle spasms, and inflammation in the area where the sprain is located.

When a cervical sprain occurs, the neck may have a limited range of motion due to swelling. Mild cases of this injury may only involve tearing of ligaments while motion of the neck and spine continues to operate as normal. Ligament ruptures are a sign of moderate cervical injuries, causing a partial loss of function in the neck. Mild to moderate cases can usually be treated at home with ice to reduce the swelling. Pain medications and soft stretching exercises can also help to treat the injury. A physician may provide a cervical collar to immobilize the neck, reducing nerve pressure and relaxing muscles during the healing process.

In some cases, anti-inflammatory agents or pain medications may be prescribed by a doctor along with muscle relaxers if the injury causes a spasm. Surgery may be necessary to repair a cervical sprain if it has not healed within a few days. In these cases, the sprain is often severe and there is a complete loss of neck function. The ligament is likely damaged beyond home repair, and may have separated from the spinal bone. Healing time for a cervical sprain can be up to six weeks or longer depending on its severity. Strengthening the muscles using different motion exercises can lower the risk of further injury.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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