The most frequent cervical injuries in athletes are probably acute strains and sprains of the musculature of the neck, as well as soft-tissue contusions.
A strain refers to an injury to a muscle, occurring when a muscle-tendon unit is stretched or overloaded. Cervical muscles that are commonly strained include the sternocleidomastoid (SCM), the trapezius, the rhomboids, the erector spinae, the scalenes, and the levator scapulae.
A sprain refers to a ligamentous injury, and the diagnosis of cervical sprain implies that the ligamentous and capsular structures connecting the cervical facet joints and vertebrae have been damaged. Practically, a cervical sprain may be difficult to differentiate from a strain, and the 2 injuries often occur simultaneously. Pain referred to the muscle can arise from any source that is modulated by the dorsal rami.
Numerous epidemiologic studies have been completed in the hopes of identifying the injury risk patterns that are associated with specific sports. Many athletes are reluctant to report minor injuries, and because the overwhelming numbers of sports-related spinal injuries are self-limited and resolve before being reported, the accuracy of these studies has been challenged. The mainstay of prevention and treatment of cervical spine injuries is maintaining good strength and flexibility through conditioning.
For excellent patient education resources, visit eMedicineHealth’s First Aid and Injuries Center. Also, see eMedicineHealth’s patient education articles Neck Strain, Sprains and Strains, Muscle Strain, and Whiplash.
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