7 Common Causes of Neck Injury
We crack it, pop it, twist it, get cricks in it, and break it. It’s our neck. It houses our cervical spine and other organs, veins, and glands. The cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae. Each is separated by a disc designed to cushion and support the bones. When healthy, our necks support our head and brain, and protect the organs, veins, and glands within it from damage.
Years of twisting, turning, and supporting the weight of our head can take its toll. Repetitive stress and occasional trauma can turn our daily activities—walking, driving, reading, or housework—into real chores. If you’re feeling a pain in your neck, here are some of the common causes.
1. Whiplash. Car collisions, particularly a rear-impact, can lead to whiplash. A jarring collision pushes your head and neck forward violently. This damages soft tissue, muscles, ligaments, and nerves. Sports injuries, falls, or trauma can also cause whiplash. Symptoms may include intense pain and discomfort, weakness, numbness, or tingling. Proper diagnosis involves a visit with your doctor who will X-ray (or MRI) your neck. Once the extent of the damage is known, you’ll receive treatment options. Surgery for whiplash is rare unless structural damage is present.
“A vast majority of neck pain goes away within a few days and even more within three months. Studies show, however, that anywhere between 12 percent and 50 percent of people still have persistent neck pain after a year,” says pain management specialist Robert Bolash, MD. “If you are still feeling significant pain after three months, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor to evaluate your condition. He or she may then recommend further treatment, if needed.”
2. Repetitive Long-Term Strain. Poor posture at your computer, reading hunched over in a chair, or sleeping with your neck poorly supported strains your neck. Rest, anti-inflammatory pain medication, support pillows, and elevating your monitor can help prevent additional damage.
3. Sports Traumas. Football, horseback riding, or ice hockey injuries can sprain or strain your neck. These jolting traumas happen suddenly—a blindside hit, a rider tossed by a spooked horse, or a hard body check. Treatment includes restricting motion, cold or heat packs applied to the neck, and over-the-counter pain remedies. This type of injury heals within days to weeks.
4. Stingers. Stingers are common in athletes when a nerve in the neck gets pinched. It’s marked by sharp, shooting pain in the neck and arms. Treat stingers with pain relievers and rest. Symptoms go away in days or weeks.
5. Vertebral Fracture. Known as a broken neck, vertebral fractures can be caused by trauma, a fall, or spinal degeneration. Many of these injuries are minor and don’t require surgery. In the case of major fractures, serious long-term problems can arise if they are not treated properly, says Cleveland Clinic. Car accidents and falls are the leading causes of fractures. Symptoms include back or neck pain, numbness, tingling, spasm, weakness, bowel/bladder changes, and paralysis. Vertebral fractures can be dangerous—spinal damage, paralysis, or even death—and should be taken seriously.
6. Herniated Disc. Herniation happens when the fibers of your spinal discs tear causing the soft substance in the nucleus to press against a nerve. Symptoms includes weakness, numbness, and the feeling of electrical shock in the affected area. Herniated discs can be treated naturally at home with the help of medication and physical therapy, but if severe, could require surgery.
7. Falls. In older people, slip and fall accidents can create whiplash injuries. The sudden jolt can lead to headaches, severe neck pain, and numbness in the arms and hands. People with osteoporosis are at higher risk for neck injury from falls. Neck sprains are also common in slip and fall accidents among the elderly. These, like other minor neck injuries, can be treated at home with over-the-counter pain medication, ice or heat, and rest.
Neck pain is common. Incorrect or prolonged movements to the same area increase your risk of injury. Taking precautions like stretching your neck and being aware of how you're sitting at home and work can prevent self-inflicted neck pain. In other cases, proper care and following your doctor’s treatment plan will get you back to your favorite activities in short order.