Physical Therapy for Acute Cervical Sprain or Strain

Acute neck pain is usually described as a sudden locking while turning the head or following sustained periods of looking up or down. Occasionally, patients awake with a “crick” or a “wry neck” for no particular reason. Both of these situations can cause very sharp, specific pain especially in one particular direction.

Causes of acute cervical sprain/strain

Very often turning the head to look over either shoulder is the most painful and is usually very limited. Frequently, there is a moderate amount muscle spasm associated with these specific movements. This can significantly limit the ability to perform normal activity such as driving, looking up, looking over your shoulder or raising your arms overhead. There are usually no symptoms in the arms or hands.

The onset of an acute cervical sprain or locking can have several underlying causes. Obviously any type of trauma such as sporting activity or a minor whiplash type injury can cause these joints to become swollen and inflamed. Often, the onset of this condition is unexplained which can suggest there is too much movement (hypermobility) in the specific joints in the neck called facet joints. Poor muscular control of the movement in the neck is called instability. When instability is the cause, patients will often have a frequent history of this same condition. Poor sitting postures can be an underlying cause to this condition due to the improper use of the neck and shoulder muscles.

Treatment for cervical sprains/strains

Manual therapy is found to provide a significant reduction in pain and increased ability to move in a very short time frame, usually no more than 1-2 visits.

Techniques of joint mobilization, deep tissue mobilization and muscular retraining are proven to be significantly effective treatments for this condition. Assessment and treatment of the underlying cause for this condition such as poor sleeping habits, neck weakness, postural stresses and associated areas of stiffness are the key to long term relief and reduction in re-injury. A key component for this condition is patient education. An individualized exercise program is developed for each patient’s specific problem often focusing on the deep neck muscles and the postural muscles of the shoulders and shoulder blades.

Modalities such as ice and electrical stimulation are utilized to reduce the acute inflammation and pain.

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