Neck injury: When sports become a pain in the neck

neck injury

When any neck injury is suspected a person should not be moved without a medical professional present due to the risk of spinal cord injury.

The neck, also called the cervical spine, is comprised of seven vertebrae stacked on top of each other and separated by discs that act as cushions to absorb shock and provide stability.

In the space between the vertebrae, nerves that supply the arm exit the neck. The spinal cord which supplies sensory and motor function to the arms and legs is protected by the vertebrae (bones), ligaments, discs and muscles around the neck.

Injuries to the neck occur in approximately 10 to 15 percent of football players and may or may not have an associated concussion injury.

In football, the most common positions for neck injury are linemen and defensive players. Neck injuries in these positions typically occur due to poor technique with tackling and blocking.

In addition to forceful blows from another player, injury can also occur when a player strikes the ground. Neck injuries in football can vary greatly in severity.

A common injury experienced at least once by as many as half of all college football players is called a burner or stinger. This occurs when the head if forced sideways away from the shoulder, forced backward or in other cases the shoulder is forced downward.

The sudden impact pinches or stretches the nerves of the neck producing a stinging or burning sensation with possible symptoms radiating into the arm along the path of the nerve. Symptoms may only last a few seconds or in more severe cases, neurological injury and weakness can persist for much longer.

Cervical whiplash injuries are often associated with motor vehicles accidents but can also occur in sports like football. A whiplash injury occurs when the neck rapidly extends and then forcefully flexes resulting in extreme stress on the neck.

This mechanism of injury causes the ligaments and muscles that connect each vertebra to stretch past the available range of motion. Anytime a whiplash injury occurs, an individual should seek physical therapy from a trusted resource to make sure efficient muscle function is restored thus minimizing the risk for recurring neck pain in the future.

Initial treatment for an acute musculoskeletal neck injury is similar to many sports injuries. The first goal is to rest and ease symptoms. Your physical therapist will use strategies to help calm down the aggravated soft tissue structures and decrease pain. In some cases, a soft cervical collar may be used temporarily to ease pain and inflammation.

Next, your PT will help to regain any lost range of motion, correct muscle imbalances, improve posture and help you regain your strength. Timeframe to return to sport participation can vary greatly based on the severity of your injury.

If you have experienced a sports-related or non-sports related neck injury, contact your local physical therapist to do a full evaluation. Early and effective management of musculoskeletal injuries is the best way to get you back to your sport and keep you moving well for life.

Article by Jenna Stones, DPT. Jenna is a physical therapist and movement specialist at CORE Strategies Physical Therapy, Sport Performance & Medical Fitness located in Overland Park. The CORE team specializes in rehabilitation and performance training for clients of all ages and activity levels. To learn more about CORE’s sport specific programs visit Contact Jenna at

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