Overview | Causes | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | FAQ
Like back pain, neck pain is an irritation to tendons, muscles
and ligaments in the upper back and neck area. Whiplash is characterized
by a collection of symptoms that occur following damage to the neck, usually
because of sudden extension and flexion, such as in a car accident.
Sometimes neck strain can be brought on by an abrupt movement of the neck,
such as whiplash.
Symptoms such as neck pain may be present directly after the injury or
may be delayed for several days. In addition to neck pain, other symptoms
may include neck stiffness, injuries to the muscles and ligaments (myofascial
injuries), headache, dizziness, abnormal sensations such as burning or
prickling (paresthesias), or shoulder or back pain. In addition, some
people experience cognitive, somatic or psychological conditions such
as memory loss, concentration impairment, nervousness/irritability, sleep
disturbances, fatigue or depression.
Outlined below are some of the diagnostic tools that your physician may
use to gain insight into your condition and determine the best treatment
- Medical history: Conducting a detailed medical history
helps the doctor better understand the possible causes of your back
and neck pain, which can help outline the most appropriate treatment.
- Physical exam: During the physical exam, your physician
will try to pinpoint the source of pain. Simple tests for flexibility
and muscle strength may also be conducted.
- X-rays are usually the first step in diagnostic testing
methods. X-rays show bones and the space between bones. They are of
limited value, however, since they do not show muscles and ligaments.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a magnetic field
and radio waves to generate highly detailed pictures of the inside of
your body. Since X-rays only show bones, MRIs are needed to visualize
soft tissues like discs in the spine. This type of imaging is very safe
and usually pain-free.
- CT scan/myelogram: A CT scan is similar to an MRI in
that it provides diagnostic information about the internal structures
of the spine. A myelogram is used to diagnose a bulging disc, tumor
or changes in the bones surrounding the spinal cord or nerves. A local
anesthetic is injected into the low back to numb the area. A lumbar
puncture (spinal tap) is then performed. A dye is injected into the
spinal canal to reveal where problems lie.
- Electrodiagnostics: Electrical testing of the nerves
and spinal cord may be performed as part of a diagnostic workup. These
tests, called electromyography (EMG) or somatosensory evoked potentials
(SSEP), assist your doctor in understanding how your nerves or spinal
cord are affected by your condition.
- Bone scan: Bone imaging is used to detect infection,
malignancy, fractures and arthritis in any part of the skeleton. Bone
scans are also used for finding lesions for biopsy or excision.
- Discography - Discography is used to determine the internal
structure of your disc. It is performed with a local anesthetic by injecting
dye into the disc under X-ray guidance. An X-ray or CT scan is performed
to determine if the disc’s structure is normal or abnormal and
if the injection causes pain. A benefit of a discogram is that it enables
the spine surgeon to determine the disc level that is causing pain.
And if surgery is necessary, discography helps ensure a successful surgery and reduces the risk
of operating on the wrong disc.
- Injections: These can relieve back
pain and give the physician important information about your problem,
as well as provide a bridge therapy.
Treatment for individuals with neck strain may include pain medications,
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, muscle relaxants,
and a cervical collar (usually worn for two to three weeks). Range of
motion exercises, physical therapy, and cervical traction may also be
prescribed. Supplemental heat application may relieve muscle tension.
Generally, prognosis for individuals with neck strain is
good. The pain clears within a few days or weeks. Most patients recover
within three months after the injury, however, some may continue to have residual
neck pain and headaches.
When is neck strain serious?
As with back pain, any time symptoms do not improve after three days,
it's a good idea to see a spine specialist. Also, red flag symptoms like
pain or numbness radiating into an arm, especially down into the fingers,
are emergency symptoms and should be seen by a spine specialist within
48 hours, or you risk permanent damage.
See our exercise library for helpful neck exercises.
How can I prevent neck strain?
You can minimize your risk of experiencing neck strain by strengthening
the muscles and ligaments in your neck, avoiding contact sports, and driving
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