Neck injuries aren’t often the first concern after a concussion, but neck pain is a common issue. Neck injuries may complicate your recovery and could lead to long lasting issues.

A concussion is a head injury that includes some level of brain trauma — but why does it cause neck pain?

Concussions happen when your head comes into contact with an object or force that causes your brain to move and bounce inside your skull. Short-term neurological symptoms are common, but neck pain is also a regular complaint with these injuries.

Below you’ll learn why concussions can come with — or eventually lead to — neck pain, when you should worry, and how to get help.

A concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury that usually occurs after violent movements of the head and neck. These kinds of injuries can happen after a car accident, sports injury, or any other sudden or unexpected force.

What causes head and neck pain after a concussion is sometimes called whiplash. When a force causes violent head and neck movement, your brain can actually shift inside your skull, making an impact one or more times.

Recovery from a concussion depends on the severity of the initial injury, but people who have sports-related concussions often return to preinjury activity within about 2 weeks.

For about one-third of people with concussions, symptoms can last longer. But experts say the impact on the neck during a concussion is often missed or underestimated.

According to a 2023 study, 43–60% of people with concussions reported neck pain after the injury. Between 20% and 30% had difficulty moving their neck, and about half reported one or the other.

There are several ways a concussion can cause neck damage or pain. Your cervical spine — the section of your spine that makes up your neck — is made up of 7 bones with intervertebral discs to help absorb shock during movement.

Numerous muscles and ligaments are also in this area to help you move your neck, support the weight of your head, and provide support to the rest of the spinal column.

Your neck by the numbers

Your neck’s main job is to support and move your head, and the average head weighs around 10 pounds. Your head places about 60 pounds of force on your cervical spine just by looking downward. This increased force alone makes your neck and shoulder muscles work harder to support the extra weight — and that’s without added force.

A concussion is believed to deliver about 95 g’s. One “g” is a unit that describes the amount of force gravity is placing on an object.

In comparison, a fighter pilot experiences about 9 g’s of force during flight, and a football player sustains an estimated 100 g’s of force during a hit. But it may only take 10 g’s of force to damage the ligaments in your neck.

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Neck pain or movement problems after a concussion can be the result of things like:

  • injury or damage to the cervical spine vertebrae
  • damage to the discs between the vertebrae
  • weakened or damaged neck muscles
  • ligament sprains or muscle strain in the neck
  • degenerative problems in your spine
  • poor posture

Neck pain that happens right away or even in the aftermath of a concussion may be a sign of a more severe injury that will require longer recovery.

Neck pain is also more common in people who develop a concussion after a fall or motor vehicle accident compared to sports-related concussions.

Your treatment plan will depend on the full extent of your injuries from a concussion. However, there are a few recommended strategies that may help with issues specific to neck pain:

  • Maintain good posture to prevent additional muscle strain.
  • Try to keep your arms and neck in neutral positions when working to reduce strain on your neck muscles.
  • Don’t bend your head to see things. Instead, bring items you’re looking at up to your face.
  • Avoid leaning in to see a screen or monitor. Move those items closer to you.
  • Watch TV or other events from a forward-facing position. Avoid having your neck turned in one direction for extended periods of time.
  • Use a small pillow under the nape of your neck if you’re a back sleeper.
  • Use enough pillows to keep your neck straight in line with the rest of your body if you’re a side sleeper.
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach with your head turned to the side.
  • Use ice over heat to treat pain in your neck. If you’re going to use heat, apply moist heat like a warmed towel or gel pack and leave it in place for 10–15 minutes.
  • Place an ice pack wrapped in a dry cloth for 15–20 minutes, or rub an ice cube in strokes down the area where you feel pain for 5–7 minutes at a time.
  • Use stretching exercises slowly and regularly — ideally after heat therapy.

In many cases, neck pain following a concussion can resolve in months to a year, but in severe cases can lead to chronic pain or disability that lasts for more than a year.

Safety is key when it comes to preventing concussions and the neck pain that can come with them.

When it comes to sports safety, certified headgear and helmets are important. Protective gear is made for many sports, but helmets or headgear, in particular, are strongly recommended for sports like:

  • baseball (batting)
  • football
  • hockey
  • skiing
  • wrestling
  • cycling
  • horseback riding
  • riding a skateboard or scooter
  • driving recreational vehicles

Headgear can also help to prevent injury with other sports and activities not on this list.

For non-sports injuries, preventive measures include:

  • maintaining good posture
  • removing fall hazards from around your home
  • wearing a seat belt every time you’re in a vehicle
  • never operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • never riding in a vehicle driven by someone under the influence

Strength training can also help prevent neck injuries, especially if you participate in higher risk activities like contact sports.

A 2023 study found that for every pound of increased neck strength, the risk of concussion among high school athletes dropped by 5%.

Neck injuries aren’t always the first concern when you experience a concussion, but neck injuries can complicate your recovery and could result in long lasting issues.

Strength training, good posture, and standard safety measures can help you avoid a serious concussion and the neck pain that follows.

If you do notice neck pain after a concussion, talk with your healthcare team about therapies and testing to help keep your injury from turning into a chronic problem or permanent disability.