Holiday Football Game is a Pain in the Neck!

Dealing with a Neck Strain

Question: On Thanksgiving Day, I played in my family's touch football game. My team won, but I hurt my neck really badly as I scored the game winning touchdown. I was looking back for a pass from the quarterback (my daughter), and I caught it in the end zone. Very exciting! But my brother was standing right in the way, so I ran into him. End result, the muscles on the left side of my neck feel like they have all been strained. My wife says I should go see a doctor, but I'm wondering: will this neck pain go away on its own? Should I put heat on it (my daughter says I should use ice)? Can I take pain medication for it? Is there anything I can do to make the strain heal faster?
—Missoula, MT

Answer: Well, at least your team won! If it is just a strain—and most neck pain is caused by a sprain or a strain—you should feel better by next year. Of course, that's not as long as it sounds: Most neck pain "goes away" in 6-10 weeks, so you should be in less pain by the end of January.

With all that said, I do agree with your wife—you should get in to see your doctor. You need to make sure that your neck pain is from a strain and not from something more serious. For example, you could have a herniated disc in your neck, and that could be pressing on your nerves and causing your pain. Your doctor can do an MRI or a CT scan to help eliminate other possible causes of your pain.

In the meantime, here are a couple of ways you can deal with the pain:

  • Heat/Ice: In the first 24-48 hours after you hurt your neck, I hope that you listened to your daughter and used ice. That reduces the inflammation, and immediately following an injury like this, that's what you need. After that initial period, you should alternate between heat and ice. The heat will bring an increased blood flow to the area where you're having pain. More blood means that area will get more oxygen and more nutrients, and that will help healing. It will also help loosen up tight muscles.
  • Pain Medication: You can take over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol, Motrin, Aleve, or Advil to help handle your neck pain. All of those except Tylenol help reduce inflammation in addition to relieving pain. In appropriate doses, use whatever pain medication works best for you.

As for hurrying the healing process, I hope that your family doesn't have a traditional Christmas Day touch football game, too...because you won't be playing in it if they do. When you have a muscle strain, it's best to go easy; avoid activities where you could hurt it again.

You should also avoid extreme twisting or heavy lifting as your neck heals. That means that you probably shouldn't be carrying any cumbersome packages (an excuse to go light on the Christmas shopping this year). Basically, you should be cautious with neck movement and with using the muscles that support your neck.

You could also do some basic range of motion exercises to keep your muscles from tightening up. A couple times a day, tip your head back to look at the ceiling, then bend your neck forward. You can also stretch your neck from side to side.

By being extra cautious (e.g., no heavy lifting and no football games), your neck pain should go away soon enough.

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