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Why Does My Neck Hurt After Playing Sports?

It’s common to feel some muscle soreness after playing sports, but pain in the neck can be particularly annoying and concerning. If your neck hurts every time you play your favorite sport, it’s worth understanding the potential causes and how to prevent and treat the pain.

What Causes Neck Pain After Sports?

There are a few key reasons why sports can strain the neck muscles and lead to post-game soreness:

  • Whiplash Motions: Sports that involve quick head turning side-to-side like tennis, hockey, and baseball can cause whiplash-like motions that overstretch the neck. This forces the muscles to move beyond their normal range quickly, resulting in muscle strains.
  • Direct Impact: Contact sports like football lead to direct blows to the helmet and neck area. This can bruise muscles and cause inflammation, especially if the head and neck are not braced properly.
  • Poor Posture: Sports often require holding the head forward in an improper posture for extended periods. This puts strain on the neck from the unbalanced weight of the head. Bad posture is common in cyclists and swimmers.
  • Muscle Fatigue: Lengthy competitions like marathons require endurance of the neck muscles to hold the head stable for hours. This fatigue can make the neck sore and weak after the event.
  • Age: As we get older, neck muscles weaken and are more prone to injury. Masters athletes may notice more post-game neck soreness than young competitors.
  • Previous Injury: Past neck strains or sprains that did not fully heal can leave residual weakness and tightness. The neck may be more easily aggravated after future activity.

Risk Factors for Neck Pain

Certain athletes are more prone to neck injuries and post-exercise pain:

  • Contact sports like football, hockey, and rugby require bracing for frequent collisions.
  • Overhead sports like volleyball and tennis lead to repetitive neck motion.
  • High-impact sports like gymnastics put intense forces on the neck during landings.
  • Endurance sports like swimming and biking require sustained neck muscle contractions.

Those with previous neck injuries have weakened areas that are vulnerable to re-injury. Improper technique, poor conditioning, and insufficient warmup can also make the neck more at risk for pain. Athletes over 30 years old may need to pay special attention to neck pain as the tissues become less flexible with age.

Treating Post-Workout Neck Pain

The good news is most exercise-related neck pain can be managed with rest, ice, over-the-counter medication, and home care:

  • Take a break from activities that aggravate the neck, especially if the pain is moderate to severe. Avoid motions that trigger the pain.
  • Apply ice packs to the painful neck muscles for 15-20 minutes after activity to reduce inflammation.
  • Use an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or naproxen to ease swelling and discomfort.
  • Gently stretch and massage the neck to release tension in the muscles. Be careful not to over-stretch injured areas.
  • Maintain good posture and neck support throughout the day.
  • Consider an OTC pain relief cream containing menthol or capsaicin.

When to See a Doctor

It’s generally safe to manage minor to moderate neck pain at home. But see a physician promptly if you experience:

  • Severe neck pain that persists for more than several days
  • Noticeable swelling, bruising, or deformity in the neck area
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or hands
  • Headaches along with the neck pain
  • Dizziness, visual changes, or difficulty with coordination
  • Severe pain from any neck motion or when lying down
  • A prior neck injury or neck problems like disk degeneration or arthritis

These can indicate a more serious problem like a neck sprain, pinched nerve, or other underlying issue needing medical care. Elderly patients should especially get neck pain checked out.

Preventing Neck Injuries During Sports

While soreness is often inevitable when playing sports, you can take steps to protect your neck:

  • Warm up and stretch the neck before activity. Gradually build activity levels.
  • Maintain proper technique to avoid overextending the neck. Keep good upright posture.
  • Strengthen the neck and upper back muscles with targeted exercises using resistance bands.
  • Use protective equipment like helmets, mouthguards, and neck braces where needed.
  • Stay well hydrated and fuel muscles properly for endurance activities.
  • Listen to your body and stop activity if the neck pain worsens or causes neurological symptoms.
  • Get regular neck massages or trigger point therapy during training periods.
  • Use caution when playing sports with prior neck problems or osteoarthritis.

By understanding proper mechanics, warming up appropriately, and responding quickly to pain, you can keep your neck healthy and withstand the rigors of your favorite athletic activity. Pay attention to sharp or persistent neck pain, however, as that’s a sign to get off the field and get checked out. With some patience and prudent care, you can get back to playing your sport pain-free.