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Football Injuries Neck Sprains

November 16, 2011

(Part of a series on football injuries. See High Ankle Sprains and Sam Bradford.)

When it comes to sports injuries and football, neck sprains are pretty common. But football players can get them in some of the most unusual ways.

Take Gus Frerrotte of the Washington Redskins, for instance. He suffered a neck sprain during a touchdown he made during a game with the New York Giants in 1997.

What happened was Frerrotte ran in for a touchdown, spiked the ball, ran through the end zone and then headbutted the concrete wall. The concrete wall was padded, but it clearly hurt. In fact, a wobbly Frerrotte took a trip to the hospital were he was diagnosed with a neck sprain.

(Thanks to James Alder for the Gus Frerrotte neck injury story.)

What Is a Neck Sprain?

Like most sprains, a neck sprain refers to a strained muscle or sprained ligament in the neck. Whiplash usually causes the injury, which, as you can imagine, can occur a lot in a contact sport like football. A vicious tackle can whip either the tackler’s neck or the one carrying the ball. This kind of whiplash can also occur from hitting the ground.

What happens is, the seven cervical vertebrae that are connected to each other by ligaments, one of these ligaments is stretched or torn beyond normal range of motion. This may happen during sudden movements that causes the neck to extend, then snap back, with extreme force.

What Are Neck Sprain Symptoms?

Neck sprain injuries are acute in their pain, meaning, localized in the neck. Here are some common symptoms:

  • Sides of your  neck are in pain
  • Back of your neck is in pain, which increases when you move your neck
  • Pain that shows up after a day or two
  • Headache in the back of your head
  • Sore throat
  • Pain or muscle spasms in the shoulders and back
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Numbness and tingling and weakness in the hands and/or arms
  • Stiffness in the neck

Treatment of Neck Sprains

If you feel or experience any of the above symptoms, see your doctor immediately. If it isn’t anything more serious than a neck sprain, then a common treatment, like most sports injuries, is the the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) method, or the PRICE method in the case of a high-ankle sprain, P standing for “protection.”

You can get additional support for neck sprains by wearing a cervical collar that will help support your neck and head, thus relieving pressure on the neck ligaments while your injury heals.

It’s also a good idea to take anti-inflammatory medications to help reduce the swelling and pain, as well as extra times of ice and compression, to reduce inflammation and swelling. Never apply heat to the injury, which increases circulation which in turn increases swelling. Sometimes muscle relaxers are prescribed to reduce spasms

It will take about four to six weeks for your neck injury symptoms to decline. However, a serious injury could take much, much longer to heal. Please be patient and avoid returning to physical work, like playing contact sports, until your neck has fully recovered.

Dr. Rick Lehman is a distinguished orthopedic surgeon in St. Louis, Missouri and an articular cartilage reconstruction pioneer. He owns U. S. Sports Medicine in Kirkwood, MO, and LehmanHealth.Learn more about Dr. Rick.


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