Treating Neck Pain from Sports Injuries

Neck pain is a common complaint among athletes who play contact sports like football, hockey, wrestling, and rugby. The neck is vulnerable to injuries like muscle strains, ligament sprains, pinched nerves, and even fractures or dislocations of the cervical vertebrae. While some neck injuries require immediate medical care, most sports-related neck pain can be treated at home with rest, ice, over-the-counter pain medication, and gentle stretches and exercises.

The most common cause of neck pain in athletes is muscle strain. Sports like football often involve impacts that violently whip the head and neck backwards or sideways. The abrupt motion overstretches the neck muscles, leading to inflammation, soreness, and spasm over the next 24-48 hours. Using ice packs for 15-20 minutes several times a day can help reduce swelling and inflammation. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen are also helpful for relieving pain and allowing the strained muscles to heal. Resting the neck as much as possible and avoiding activities that aggravate the pain speeds recovery.

Once the most intense pain has subsided after a couple days, athletes can begin gently stretching and exercising the neck to restore full mobility. Simple stretches include gently tilting the head to each side, turning the head to look over each shoulder, and bending the neck carefully to bring the ear towards each shoulder. Move slowly through the full range of motion to the point of mild stretch only. Heat packs can be applied before stretching to warm up the injured muscles. Athletes should move the neck gently through all directions for 5-10 minutes 2-3 times per day.

Strengthening exercises for the neck muscles are also important after an injury. Simple isometric exercises done in an upright seated position like pressing the palm of the hand against the forehead and resisting, and pressing the back of the head against the hand and resisting, activate the neck muscles without excessive strain. Hold each isometric exercise for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times, 2-3 sessions per day. When the neck has regained close to normal mobility and strength, resistance band exercises can be added to continue strengthening the muscles. Always start with low resistance and high repetition to avoid re-injury. Full return to contact sports should only occur after the neck has regained symmetrical mobility and muscle strength compared to the uninjured side.

Poor neck posture during sports is also a very common source of chronic neck pain in athletes. Sports like bicycling and running encourage an excessive forward head posture that places added strain on the neck over time. A physical therapist can help identify postural issues and correct them with appropriate stretching and strengthening exercises. Improving posture decreases mechanical stress on the neck and helps prevent recurring neck strains.

While most sports-related neck injuries will heal well with conservative treatment, recurrent or persistent neck pain should be evaluated by a doctor. An MRI or x-ray may be warranted to assess for more serious injuries like cervical disc herniations or fractures. Herniated discs often require referral to a spine specialist. Thankfully, most neck injuries in athletes respond very well to a combination of brief rest, ice, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and gradual return to activity with attention to proper neck conditioning and mechanics. Learning to protect the vulnerable neck during contact sports reduces the likelihood of painful injuries in the future. With proper treatment, athletes can regain neck mobility and strength and continue participating in their favorite sports.