Neck Strain Symptoms & Treatment

When neck pain and muscle soreness has been present for some time, often it can be traced to factors which strain muscle such as poor posture. Correcting such factors along with appropriate pain medication, self massage and heat directed to specific areas of the neck muscles may provide relief. Often, these muscles are involved in neck related headaches. Below are some examples of the most common found areas of neck strain along with factors that stress the areas and ways to treat and correct them. The “X” are the areas of strain and the red areas outline the areas of referred pain, so treatment is directed to the “X” areas. Click on the picture to enlarge for a better view.

Neck strain is a term commonly used to describe many problems. Technically, neck strain is a tearing of a muscle. The tear is usually described in grades and can be anywhere from mild to completely torn – a condition requiring surgery.

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A neck strain is similar to a cut on your finger. There is tearing of the tissue – remember, the classic definition of a neck strain is a tearing of the muscle. There will be pain and inflammation. On your finger, you put a band-aid on it and let it form a scab. When the scab falls off, you will have scar tissue, depending on the extent of the cut, or tear. At this point, the healing is usually complete, however, with some areas of neck strain, the scar tissue can form adhesions which can stick to other muscles or their covering (fascia), and nerves. This can produce chronic pain and muscle spasm. This is why some areas of neck strain require further treatment, usually a deeper massage type of treatment to deal with mal-formed scar tissue. Proper treatment can realign the scar tissue in the direction of the muscle fibers, thus removing painful adhesions and allowing better function of the strained muscle.

Some areas of neck strain involve trigger points – pictured as the “X” areas. These areas of strain can produce radiating symptoms similar to a pinched nerve that produces cervical radiculopathy. The pain patterns are distinct and treatment involves placing pressure in these areas in what is called ischemic compression. During this procedure, pain will often be felt in distant areas from the specific region of neck strain. Sometimes cooling the strained neck muscle and stretching it can relieve symptoms in a procedure called spray and stretch. If this fails, injections are sometimes used.

Neck Strain - Click To EnlargeThe Levator Scapula is often noted as the “stiff neck” muscle where it is difficult and painful to turn the head and neck. Problems from talking on the phone with the phone held between neck and shoulder, constant looking to one side, uneven sleeping positions, exposure of the neck to a cold draft, stress, a chair with armrests too high or walking with a cane that is too long. The neck wrap is an effective and easy way to apply heat to this muscle.



Neck Strain Rhomboid Muscle - Click To EnlargeRelated to neck strain from chronic poor neck posture, the Rhomboid muscles are often overstretched from a posture with rounded shoulders. Pain from strain of the rhomboid muscle is usually described as a “nagging pain” that is hard to get at. You can see that the rhomboid muscle, positioned between the shoulder blades, is not an easy muscle for self treatment. Self massage techniques can be done using some of the tools recommended at the bottom of the page, or you can use a tennis ball while lying on the floor or even against a sturdy wall. A moist heating pad or a hot shower can provide heat therapy to relax the muscle. Posture awareness, ergonomics and our effective neck exercises are crucial for lonh term relief and will further help reverse the pectoral muscles in the front which shorten with the round shoulder posture.



Neck Strain Sternocleidomastoid Muscle - Click To EnlargeThe Sternocleidomastoid muscle is a bit complex. It can cause neck pain and frequently results in headaches. The sternocliedomastoid muscle can become strained with turning the head to one side when reading in bed, usually towards the light, from looking up or working orverhead a lot. Strain can also occur from something as simple as shirt collar or tie that is too tight. Sleeping with the head positioned incorrectly can result in waking with a stiff neck, so using supportive pillows is very important.

Specific muscle therapy to the tender areas of the sternocliedomastoid muscle can help reduce neck related headaches as well as pain intensity. Spasm of this muscle can bend the head towards the affected side (ear towards shoulder), and turn or rotate the head to the opposite side. This is a major muscle involved in torticollis. Therapy can be done while stretching the opposite way of spasm. The muscle is easy to feel and reach.



Neck Strain Trapezius Muscle - Click To EnlargeThe Trapezius muscle has 3 parts which stabilize the neck. Problems are associated with a fall or whiplash type injury and sitting in a chair with no armrests. Also, if the armrests are too low or if the arms are short in relation to the body, activation of sore areas can arise in the upper part of the muscle. Holding the arms in front of the body for long periods of time as in driving with both hands on top of the steering wheel can irritate the middle part which is also associated with the round shoulders noted in poor neck posture. The lower part can be strained by prolonged bending and reaching forward while sitting. Don’t have a keyboard too high, check that a bra strap is not too tight and that a pocketbook strap is not too heavy, use a speaker phone and make sure you have proper elbow support. This muscle is particularly sensitive to psychological stress. Chronic neck pain from this muscle is called trapezius myalgia and strengthening exercises can help.


Neck Strain Posterior Neck Muscles - Click To EnlargeThe Posterior neck muscles (Semispinalis and Multifidi) are often involved in “pain in the neck”. Problems often cause pain when bending the head forward more than backward or side to side. Usually caused by sustained holding the neck forward when reading, writing, driving and other activities. These muscles are heavily involved with poor neck posture and usually responds well with massage and heat along with active neck exercises, proper neck pillow support and neck traction.


Neck Strain Splenius Muscle - Click To EnlargeThe Splenius muscles attach to the neck and the head and can cause an “ache inside the skull”. They can be strained by holding the neck in a forward, crooked position for prolonged periods. They are especially vulnerable when tired and exposed to a cold draft. They respond well to moist heat and neck supports.



Neck Strain Suboccipital Muscle - Click To EnlargeThe Suboccipital muscles. Strain can be caused by problems like poor posture, overuse or stress. There is pain on motion which may also be in the shoulder of the same side. The headache pain is mild to severe with no throbbing sensation and may change when pressure is applied to the muscles. The headaches may last from a few hours to a few days or even weeks. Usually responds well to neck exercises, posture correction, stress reduction and treatment of the area where the muscles attach as described above. One particular device that I like for treating the upper neck muscles is the headache neck pain release which can be adjusted to work those specific muscles. Using the weight of the head and gravity, this device can reduce spasm of neck related headache muscles and, as you acclimate to it, can be used to self massage the area using various neck exercises while lying on it.


Treatment For Neck Strain

In general, for relief of neck strain pain, use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen and other analgesics. Moist heat is important – not dry heat, you can take a hot shower for 10 – 15 minutes, run a towel under hot water and place on the neck or the popular moist heating pad which can also provide support for the neck to help relax the muscles during application. Massage is also a good method for pain relief and it should be light massage at first with the pressure going from the top of the muscle and down. There should be gradual relief. If no improvement is noted or the pain gets worse, see a doctor.

A great method of self massage is to treat specific areas of muscle strain known to cause certain pain patterns when aggravated as part of chronic neck pain. Use one or two fingers to apply a steady tolerable pressure for a minute or two. Then use similar pressure while performing a circular movement with your fingers for another minute or two. For areas that may be hard to reach on your own try the neck release, back massager, cane massager or the neck and back massager, all are great tools to avoid strain while treating neck muscle strain. In the above examples, the “X” is the area to treat and the area of most pain, while the red areas are referred pain associated with the main areas of neck strain.