7 Signs that You Have a Pulled Muscle in Your Neck
A pulled muscle in your neck can range from uncomfortable to really painful. Thankfully, it's relatively easy to treat—and rarely serious.
What is a pulled muscle?
There are a lot of things we refer to as a pain in the neck—like waiting for the cable guy to finally show. But if you have a pulled muscle in your neck, the pain can be literal. Not only that, but it can lead to a limited range of motion.
Also known as a muscle strain, a pulled muscle occurs when a muscle is overstretched or torn.
Pulled neck muscles are a common source of neck pain, which affects more than 15 percent of adults in the United States, according to the 2018 National Health Interview Survey by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.
Most often, a pulled muscle in the neck affects the trapezius and the levator scapulae muscles.
“The trapezius muscle is located on the posterior aspect of the thorax and neck,” says Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, spinal and orthopedic surgeon at the Institute for Comprehensive Spine Care in New York City.
That’s the medical way of saying you’ll find the muscle where the back of your neck and upper back meet.
“It is responsible for stabilizing the shoulder blade, extending the head at the neck, and rotating the neck,” he says. “The levator scapulae is situated at the side and back of the neck, and its main function is to elevate the scapula [shoulder blade]. This muscle’s key role is rotating and bending the neck to the side.”
Despite coming with some potentially debilitating symptoms, a pulled muscle in the neck often can be treated at home relatively easily.
What causes a pulled muscle in the neck?
A pulled neck muscle can happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from poor posture to falls, collisions, sports injuries, or car accidents.
“Typically, they can occur when working past fatigue, overuse, or simply pulling beyond the muscle’s capabilities,” says Rahul Shah, MD, a board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon at Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates in Vineland, New Jersey. “Oftentimes, it is an innocuous movement that follows a series of heavy movements, which tends to push the muscle past its limits.”
For example, Dr. Shah says, if you are lifting weights overhead and turn your head to look at something, it could push a neck muscle beyond its capabilities.
“When applied to everyday scenarios, this type of activity can occur when doing household chores, working for extended periods of time, or playing sports,” he says.
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How do you know if you have a pulled neck muscle?
If you’ve pulled a neck muscle, you’ll know it. The most common symptoms of a strained muscle are:
- Dull, sharp, and/or achy pain in the neck
- Possible shoulder pain
Additional symptoms may include:
“Sometimes I can even see a decreased range of motion with muscle spasms, which can usually present themselves on the side and back of the neck,” says Oluseun A. Olufade, MD, assistant professor of orthopedics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
How is a pulled muscle in the neck diagnosed?
If your neck muscle pain continues for more than a few days, continues to get worse, or spreads into the arms and/or hands, it’s important to seek a medical evaluation from your doctor.
Diagnosis typically starts with a review of your medical history and an overview of how the symptoms began.
“If the history is consistent with a pulled muscle, then additional examinations can be undertaken,” Dr. Shah says. “This may include evaluation of the area of the spasm to check for evidence of tenderness, muscle spasms, or tightness within the muscle.”
Your doctor may look for swelling or bruising and may evaluate your range of motion, not only in the neck and shoulder but also the torso.
Depending on what your doctor finds, you may need to undergo an X-ray, ultrasound, CAT scan, or MRI.
What are the treatments?
In most cases, you can treat neck muscle pain at home using heat and ice to help reduce swelling and inflammation, as well as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat pain and inflammation.
(Here’s how to use a neck heating pad to start soothing aches.)
You’ll probably want your injury to heal up ASAP, but there is no set time frame for healing a pulled muscle in the neck.
“Most strains will get better within two hours. Some will take two days, and some will take two weeks,” Dr. Shah says. “Typically, most strains should be healed within two weeks.”
Of course, every person is different, so it may take longer for you to heal.
(Here are 4 trapezius stretches you can try to ease tension.)
Are there any serious complications?
As a standalone ailment, a pulled neck muscle generally is mild or moderate and does not result in any serious complications. However, neck muscle pain can indicate something more serious.
“For example, a patient can have severe nerve damage in the neck that initially presents as neck strain,” Dr. Olufade says.
In some instances, neck muscle pain could be an initial symptom of a problem that exists outside the neck and could soon be joined by other symptoms, such as fever, chills, or difficulty with other organ systems.
“Therefore, it is advisable to look for any of these other symptoms when one has [symptoms of] a pulled neck muscle to ensure that it is just a pulled muscle,” Dr. Shah says.
How can you prevent a pulled muscle in the neck?
Although you can’t always prevent it, there are some lifestyle practices you can implement to help reduce the risk of neck muscle pain.
Protect yourself by strengthening your neck muscles, practicing proper sleeping habits (such as using the right kind of pillow), and maintaining good cardiovascular health to improve blood flow to muscles.
Try to keep good posture at your desk through the use of ergonomics, and avoid spending too much time looking down at your phone or reading in bed, Dr. Olufade says.
“This often results in neck injuries such as neck strain because of the forward position of the neck and rounded forward position of the shoulders,” he says. “These poor positions can predispose one to increased muscle tone, muscle injury, and pain.”
Next, find out seven possible reasons your neck hurts.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Tables of Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: 2018 National Health Interview Survey"
- Gbolahan Okubadejo, MD, FAAOS, spinal and orthopedic surgeon with the Institute for Comprehensive Spine Care in New York
- Rahul Shah, MD, board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon with Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates in Vineland, New Jersey
- Oluseun A. Olufade, MD, assistant professor of orthopedics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta