Should I Go To ER for Pulled Neck Muscle?

Waking up with a stiff and painful neck can throw off your whole day. If you try to turn your head and feel a sharp, stabbing pain, you may have pulled a muscle in your neck. Pulled neck muscles are common and usually not serious, but the pain can be excruciating. So should you go to the emergency room for a pulled neck muscle or just wait it out at home? Here are some tips to help you decide.

Causes and Symptoms

A pulled or strained neck muscle means you have overstretched or torn a muscle or tendon in your neck. This often happens due to exercise, improper posture while sleeping, or stress and tension. Symptoms include:

  • Sharp pain when turning or moving your head
  • Muscle spasms and stiffness
  • Swelling around the affected muscle
  • Difficulty moving your neck
  • Headache

The pain is usually worse when first moving your neck after sleeping or staying still. Over the next few days, the pain may improve, but stiffness and discomfort can linger for up to a week or more.

Home Treatment

For most people, a pulled neck muscle will heal on its own with rest and conservative home treatment. Try these remedies first before rushing off to the ER:

  • Use an ice pack on the painful area for 15-20 minutes several times per day to reduce inflammation. Wrap the ice pack in a thin towel to protect your skin.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen. This can ease the pain so you can keep your neck mobile.
  • Limit movement of your neck and avoid positions that trigger pain. Temporary use of a soft cervical collar can provide support and limit mobility while healing.
  • Try gentle stretches and neck exercises once the initial pain subsides to prevent stiffness. Avoid jerky movements and lifting heavy objects.
  • Use a heating pad on lower settings after the first 2-3 days when the pain is no longer severe. The warmth can relax tight muscles and increase blood flow.
  • Get plenty of rest and avoid activities that strain your neck like sports, heavy housework, or painting walls.

See a Doctor If…

In most cases, you can manage a pulled neck muscle at home without a trip to the ER. But see your doctor promptly if you experience:

  • Increasing pain or inability to move your neck after several days
  • Numbness or tingling in your arms or hands
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (seek emergency care immediately)
  • Fever, headache, nausea or vomiting
  • Any time you have difficulty breathing or swallowing

These can indicate a more serious injury or health issue requiring medical treatment. Neck pain that follows a fall, blow to the head, or violent motion also deserves prompt medical attention even without other symptoms.

For severe neck pain that does not improve with conservative treatment, your doctor may recommend prescription medication or physical therapy. But simple overstretching of a neck muscle rarely requires an emergency room visit. With proper home care and a little patience, most pulled neck muscles heal completely within a week or two.