It can be a scary experience when it happens, but it's very common. You wake up with pain in one side of your neck, your heads tilted to the other side and you find it very difficult and painful to move your neck. Sometimes, rather than waking with the pain, it comes on suddenly during the day, often from an innocuous movement you've done a million times before (I once did it getting out of a car).
People often intrinsically associate a sharp pain with a nerve pain, and of course you know that your spinal cord runs through your neck. This is why many people find this sudden onset of neck pain a scary experience.
The good news is that the vast majority of the time this experience is a simple joint sprain in your neck. There are seven vertebrae in your neck and between each level there are three joints. Each of these joints are movable joints and so they have the same basic makeup as joints like your ankle or your knee. That means they have connective tissue structures that can be injured similarly to spraining an ankle, knee, wrist etc.
When these joints are injured, pain is usually caused by movements that close these joints down. For example, a sprain of a joint on the right side of the neck will usually cause pain with looking up, looking over the right shoulder or tilting your head down towards your right shoulder. Often tilting your head to the opposite side is less painful than having your neck in a neutral position, and this is why sufferers will often have their head tilted down to one side.
Sometimes pain will refer into the back of the head, the shoulder, the upper back and/or the upper arm. These pain referrals are normal and don't necessarily indicate that the pain is coming from a nerve either.
Pins and needles, pain referral beyond the elbow, numbness and/or muscle weakness may indicate nerve involvement. However, the majority of the time the nerve is simply irritated by the inflammation associated with the injury. This means these symptoms will subside as the inflammation subsides.
Like other acute joint sprains, management of inflammation is the key to early treatment. Therefore the temptation to use a heat pack should be avoided in the first few days. You can try ice, relative rest and gentle exercise to manage the inflammation. A physiotherapist can also perform joint mobilisation and massage techniques to help reduce pain and improve range of movement.
These neck sprains usually recover quite quickly. With a couple of sessions of treatment and time to get through the acute inflammatory phase, the symptoms have usually largely or completely subsided.
If you experience ongoing symptoms or you're getting recurrent neck sprains then a rehab program to address the causative factors is worthwhile.
Suffering neck pain? See our physiotherapist in Aubin Grove for help in relieving pain and managing your condition.