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 are acute, happening suddenly during play, others are chronic from repetitive stress to the neck over time. Treating neck pain properly is key to reducing symptoms, speeding healing, and preventing re-injury.
Causes of Neck Pain in Sports
The neck has a highly complex structure that allows movement in all directions while protecting the spinal cord and nerve roots. Sports injuries that cause neck pain include:
- Muscle strains – Overstretching the neck muscles and tendons results in microtears and inflammation. Sports with frequent impacts like tackling or checking put the neck muscles and tendons at risk.
- Ligament sprains – The ligaments around the vertebrae can be overstretched or torn, causing neck instability and pain. Quick changes in direction stress the neck ligaments.
- Herniated discs – Forceful hyperextension or rotation of the neck can cause disc material to bulge or rupture, putting pressure on nerves. Contact sports where the head/neck get hit frequently increase disc injury risk.
- Pinched nerves – Disc bulges or bone spurs caused by repetitive stress can pinch cervical nerves, causing numbness, tingling, and pain in the neck that radiates down the arms.
- Fractures/dislocations – Direct blows to the head/neck or extreme twisting force can break vertebrae or knock them out of alignment, requiring prompt medical care.
Managing Acute Neck Injuries
For acute neck injuries that happen suddenly during play, immediate first aid is important:
- Stop playing and avoid any movement that causes sharp neck pain. Leave the field if needed.
- Apply ice packs to reduce swelling and ease pain/muscle spasms. Use a cold compress for 10-15 minutes every 2-3 hours.
- Immobilize the neck with a rigid brace or collar until a medical exam clears further movement.
- See a doctor promptly for evaluation. X-rays or MRI scans may be needed to assess bone, disc, ligament, and spinal cord injury.
- Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen to relieve pain and inflammation.
- Rest the neck completely from sports initially. Return to play should only occur after the doctor clears participation.
Rehabilitating Neck Injuries
For both acute injuries and chronic neck pain, physical therapy and rehab exercises are vital for recovery. A physical therapist can recommend techniques like:
- Gentle range-of-motion exercises to restore normal neck mobility once pain starts decreasing. Avoid any movements that reproduce sharp pain.
- Strengthening exercises using resistance bands to build up the neck and upper back muscles that support proper neck function.
- Posture training to correct poor neck positioning that strains muscles and joints.
- Manual therapy techniques like massage, trigger point therapy, and joint mobilization performed by the physical therapist to relieve muscle tightness and joint restrictions.
- Modalities like heat/cold therapy, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound to relax muscles, reduce inflammation, and stimulate healing.
The physical therapist will tailor the rehab program to target the individual’s injury and sport to safely maximize neck strength and mobility. Completing PT homework consistently is key for recovery.
It’s important for athletes to take steps to avoid reinjuring the neck after treatment:
- Wear protective gear designed for the sport like padded helmet and shoulder pads that shield the neck.
- Maintain neck strength and flexibility with regular exercise.
- Use proper technique and avoid leading with the head during contact. Keep the head up when tackling.
- Limit total head impacts through rules, substitutions, and practice modifications.
- Speak up about neck pain early before small strains become serious injuries. Adjust activity if the neck hurts.
- Get adequate rest between practices and games to allow recovery.
Neck injuries can sideline athletes for weeks or longer if not managed promptly and correctly. Seeking proper medical care, rehabbing diligently, and protecting the neck are all critical to get back in the game safely. Being proactive reduces injury risk and keeps the neck pain-free.