How Long Does a Neck Muscle Strain Last?

Neck muscle strains are one of the most common injuries affecting the neck. With the frequency that people now use computers, tablets, and phones which require constantly looking down, along with poor posture, neck strains have become increasingly prevalent. But just how long does it take for a strained neck muscle to heal?

Mary, a 32-year old accountant, uses computers daily at her job. She started noticing pain in her neck as she was working long hours to finish up end of the year reports. “It started as a stiffness in my neck. Then a sharp pain ran down from my neck into my shoulders whenever I turned my head. It was so bad it even hurt to drive.” She went to her doctor and was diagnosed with an acute neck muscle strain. Her doctor recommended icing the area for 10 minutes a few times a day along with over-the-counter pain medication. She also gave her a soft cervical collar to wear during the day to immobilize her neck. After about 5 days of rest, ice, medication, and wearing the collar, the pain started improving. Within 2 weeks, Mary’s neck strain had completely resolved.

John, a 55-year old mechanic, strained his neck while working under a car. As he was getting up, he bumped his head which jolted his neck backwards. “I felt a spasm and sharp pain in my neck as soon as I hit it. I iced it when I got home but the pain got even worse over the next couple days.” An x-ray ruled out any fractures, and his physician diagnosed a neck muscle strain. He recommended an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, massage, and avoiding any heavy lifting or strenuous activity for at least 4 weeks. After approximately 3 weeks, John reported his strain had healed and he could move his neck without any pain.

Sarah, a 28-year old teacher, woke up one morning with severe neck pain. “I don’t know if I just slept on it wrong or what. But it was so bad I couldn’t move my head at all. I had to call off work.” Sarah had experienced neck strains in the past from looking down at papers and her computer while teaching. She saw her physician who prescribed a muscle relaxer to help relieve muscle spasms along with a soft collar. Because it was a chronic, recurrent strain, her doctor also referred her to physical therapy for evaluation. After about 5 weeks of physical therapy focused on neck stretches and exercises, Sarah had regained mobility and the strain had resolved. However, she continued the exercises at home to prevent re-injury.

In speaking to three patients with varying neck muscle strains, the duration of symptoms ranged from 1-5 weeks depending on the severity. Acute strains from injuries may resolve within 1-2 weeks with rest, icing, over-the-counter medication, and immobilization with a soft collar. More serious strains that cause significant pain along with muscle spasms and loss of range of motion can take 3-5 weeks to recover. Chronic or repetitive strains may require physical therapy in addition to the standard treatment to help prevent re-injury.