A pulled muscle can literally be a pain in the neck. A pulled neck muscle refers to a strain that injures a specific muscle or the tendon that connects that muscle to bone. While a pulled muscle is typically not a serious condition, it can be quite painful in an area like the neck because of frequent twisting and turning. However, rest, medication and some simple home therapies are often all that's needed to treat this common injury.
Heat and Cold Therapies
A neck muscle strain causes inflammation and pain. Applying cold treatment, such as an ice pack, for the first 2 to 3 days after an injury can help reduce swelling and pain. After the first 2 or 3 days, heat therapy -- applied with a heating pad, microwavable heat pack or even a warm shower -- helps relieve neck muscle spasms, increase blood flow and soothe the muscle. Heat and cold treatment are typically used for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day.
Rest, Relaxation and Exercise
Resting a pulled neck muscle is recommended for at least a couple of days to give the injured tissue time to heal. Lying down with a neck pillow or small rolled towel under the nape of the neck allows the muscles to rest. After the initial neck pain subsides, gentle stretching exercises can help relieve tension and increase blood flow to the region. Slowly rotating the head side to side, tucking the chin, and rolling the shoulders can help stretch different neck muscles. Any exercise that aggravates neck pain should be avoided. Gentle massage might help alleviate muscle tension and soothe a sore neck muscle.
The pain of neck strain can typically be controlled with over-the-counter pain relievers. Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) are preferred because they help to control inflammation as well as pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is also an option, but it doesn't have antiinflammatory effects. If the neck pain is severe, a prescription pain medication and/or a muscle relaxant may be needed.
When to See a Doctor
While a pulled neck muscle can often be treated at home, neck pain may signal a more serious problem. Seek medical treatment right away if your pain is severe or getting worse, or if you experience symptoms that may indicate nerve damage -- such as muscle weakness in your shoulder or arms, or pain, numbness or tingling that extends into your shoulder, arm or chest. Also see your doctor if your neck pain does not improve after 4 to 5 days of home care.
- Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy: Neck Pain: Clinical Practice Guidelines Linked to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health From the Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association
- American Physical Therapy Association Book of Body Maintenance and Repair; Marilyn Moffat and Steve Vickery
- Treat Your Back Without Surgery, Second Edition; Stephen Hochschuler and Bob Reznik
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Evaluation of Neck and Back Pain