Neck injuries are more common than is often thought, especially in the modern world where a poor posture can cause significant strain on the neck structures. This leads not only to neck pain and stiffness but can also contribute to headaches and a host of other symptoms. There are different types of neck injuries and some can be serious and even life threatening.
What is a neck injury?
Neck injury is any trauma to the structures of the neck, including the skin. It is not only injury caused by blunt force trauma or penetrating injuries but also trauma due to repetitive stress as may be seen with poor posture. The neck is made of many structures such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, nerves and bones. Any of these structures can be injured in a number of different ways.
Neck injuries account for up to 1 in 10 serious traumatic injuries in the United States. However, these injuries are not always as obvious and serious as may be seen with events like motor vehicle collisions leading to whiplash. One of the common neck problems of the modern age which is due to repetive stress injury to the neck is text neck syndrome. It is a common cause of neck and upper back pain in the 18 to 44 year age group.
Read more on text neck syndrome.
Causes of Neck Injuries
The types of neck injuries have been broadly divided into three categories. It is important to note that even neck injuries which appear innocuous can be serious. The neck contains vital structures like the carotid artery and cervical portion of the vertebral column (spine). Therefore neck injuries should be managed with care and medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.
There are many different ways in which the neck can be injured due to sudden impact. A blow to the neck may occur for various reason like with a fall or assault. However, one of the common neck injuries is whiplash. This is a sudden forward and backward whipping of the neck which often occurs with motor vehicle collisions and contact sports.
In this type of injury the muscles and its tendons are strained and ligaments may be suddenly stretched (sprain). These injuries may sometimes be life-threatening, as may be seen with strangulation. Excessive manipulation ¹ of the spine can also cause neck injury if done without proper care.
A penetrating injury can occur with intentional or unintentional sharp force trauma. These injuries are often associated with accidents or assaults where the skin and subcutaneous tissue is often breached. It can significant injury and damage to internal structures of the neck and may even result in death. Neck surgery is another possible cause of a penetrating injury.
Repetitive Stress Injuries
Repetitive stress injuries to the neck are common. These injuries are not sudden and often not as forceful as other forms of injury. Even poor posture that is continuous over long periods can cause repetitive stress injuries to the neck. A growing problem with regards to repetitive stress injuries to the neck is the use of electronic devices. Looking at screens for long periods is a common cause of repetitive stress injuries.
Similarly prolonged reading, sleeping in an awkward position and any other activity that involves holding the head up or bending at the neck for long periods can also cause strain to the neck, particularly the muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as to the vertebral joints. Neck muscle strain and injury may also arise with exercise and physical activities, especilly if the body is not conditioned for these activities.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a neck injury can vary depending on the type and severity of the injury. In addition to the symptoms below, there may also be visible wounds with blood in the event of a penetrating injury. Sometimes symptoms may not arise immediately after an injury but instead arise within hours to a day or two thereafter.
- Neck pain and/or tenderness
- Stiff neck – limited range of movement
- Redness to purplish-blue discoloration
- Swelling, either diffuse or localized
Upper back pain and headaches may also occur with neck injuries. Sometimes the injury is not isolation to the neck and may extend to the head, shoulders, chest and upper back. In these cases, there may be additional symptoms although this is not due to the neck injury.
Read more on neck pain.
Treatment of Neck Injuries
The treatment of a neck injury depends on the type and severity of injury. Penetrating injuries of any depth should be considered serious due to vital structures that lie in the neck. This requires immediate medical attention. Even blunt trauma, like strangulation, can be serious and potentially life threatening. Therefore these injuries should be managed by a medical professional.
However, minor blunt force and repetitive stress injuries that are not very severe can be managed conservatively until medical attention can be sought.
- Certain medication like ibuprofen and acetaminophen may be helpful in reducing inflammation and easing symptoms but it is advisable to first consult with a medical professional.
- Heat or cold therapy can be used but the benefits may be limited. Ice packs may be useful immediately after an injury while heat pads on a mild setting may provide some relief, particularly for muscle strain.
- Maintain a good posture with the head properly positioned. The ears should be in line with the shoulders. Slouching and a head-forward posture should be avoided.
- Ensure proper support for the neck when lying down or sleeping. Special ergonomic pillows with adequate neck support are widely available.
- Gentle massage of the neck can be helpful but should be avoided if there are penetrating injuries or severe blunt force trauma. Massage must be avoided if it exacerbates pain.
- Neck exercises are helpful for relieving and sometimes even preventing repetitive stress injuries. Always speak to a medical professonal like a physical therapist to learn the appropriate neck exercises.
- A soft neck collar may sometimes be advisable for short term use with mild blunt force injury and repetitive stress injuries. However, these collars should only be used if approved by a medical professional.