Neck Joint Sprain
(Cervical Facet Sprain)

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Neck Joint sprain/Facet Joint Sprain (stiff neck) is one of the most common injuries that osteopaths deal with. It is quite a debilitating injury as we don't realise how much we use out neck until it becomes sore and stiff.

What is a facet joint?
Our body is full of joints that help us move and the spine in our neck has little joints within it called "facet joints". These joints run all the way down the spine and are orientated to help guide the motion of our necks in all movements. Facet joints are about the size of our fingertips and each joint is surrounded by a joint capsule.

Some studies have revealed that these joints are more sensitive to pain than others (which may explain the high incidence of injury). Anyone who has experienced an in-grown toenail or splinter may understand how something so small can cause so much pain or discomfort.

Causes of a Neck Joint Sprain

  • Generally, it is caused by chronic mechanical overloading of the supportive structures of the upper back and neck (including muscle, fascia, ligaments and facet joints). This can lead to muscle fatigue and micro-trauma of these tissues causing low or high grade inflammation in areas of strain (an overloading of the facet joint).
  • Most commonly caused by poor and sustained/excessive poor postures or repetitive strain.
  • Commonly presents in those spending extended periods of sitting and working on desks and computers.
  • It is theorised that drooping of shoulders, head and neck as a result of stress and other psychological issues may also contribute.
  • Pregnancy and recent weight gain.
  • Sedentary lifestyle and obesity
  • Poor bra support.
  • Long history of general poor posture
  • A history of other conditions or injuries that may have been poorly managed which can cause compensatory postural changes
  • Trauma such as sleeping awkwardly, a fall, heavy lifting, or whiplash
  • Pre-existing conditions such as some arthritic conditions or degenerative diseases.


  • Sharp ache in the neck especially with certain movements.
  • Neck stiffness
  • Often wake up with neck stiffness
  • May experience constant neck pain (commonly dull)
  • Muscle spasm in the neck that may by tender to touch
  • Dull achy pain may last for weeks (in some cases months.
  • Muscle spasms in upper back, shoulders, and chest
  • Pain may travel down the back, out to the shoulders, or into front of neck.

Your osteopath will commonly be able to diagnose this through a thorough history and physical examination. Your osteopath will also screen for any conditions that may require referral to a specialist. In some cases imaging such as X-Ray/MRI/CT scan may be ordered to rule out any other causes of the neck pain.

How long will it take to heal?
This really depends on the severity of the sprain, the amount of inflammation, and your individual health and lifestyle. The text book answer for neck sprains is commonly 14 days but in reality a fit and healthy person with a "mild" sprain may experience resolution within 5-7 days where as a "severe sprain" in an unhealthy person may wait over 4 weeks for resolution.

Self Management

  • Ice is beneficial in the first 24-48 hours (3 sets of 10 minutes on 10 minutes off - 2 or 3 times per day). Stop using ice with any discomfort or if there is no relief.
  • Heat after the first 24-48 hours (20 minutes on 20 minutes off 2 or 3 times per day). Heat will assist in relaxing the muscles in spasm around the injury. Stop using heat with any discomfort or if there is no relief.
  • Anti-Inflammatory/Pain Reliever/Analgesic Medication as prescribed by your general practitioner or pharmacist.
  • Neck and upper body stretching and strengthening (as prescribed by your osteopath).
  • Ergonomics, Postural Training and Lifestyle changes (your osteopath will help with advice based on your past medical history and general questioning)
  • Click Here for Stretches for The Neck.
  • Click Here for Strengthening for The Neck