After Neck Injuries, How Soon Can You Begin Movement?



Neck injuries are a common occurrence, and they can range from minor strains to more serious issues like whiplash or even spinal injuries. After sustaining a neck injury, one of the primary concerns for patients and healthcare professionals is when it’s safe to begin motion and rehabilitation. The timing and approach to resuming motion after a neck injury can significantly impact recovery and overall well-being.

Understanding the Type and Severity of the Neck Injury

The first step in determining when it’s safe to begin motion after a neck injury is understanding the type and severity of the injury. Not all neck injuries are the same, and the treatment and recovery timeline can vary widely. Here are some common types of neck injuries:

  • Muscle Strains: These are often the mildest neck injuries and typically involve overstretching or tearing of neck muscles. They might result from sudden movements or poor posture. In most cases, motion can resume relatively quickly after a brief period of rest.
  • Whiplash: Whiplash is a more severe neck injury that occurs when the head is suddenly jerked backward and then forward, often in a car accident. Recovery time can vary but generally requires a more cautious approach to resuming motion.
  • Herniated Disc: In cases where the intervertebral discs in the neck are damaged, recovery can be longer, and motion should be approached with caution.
  • Spinal Cord Injuries: These are the most serious and typically require extensive medical attention. Any motion should only be initiated under the strict guidance of healthcare professionals.

Determining When to Begin Motion

The decision of when to begin motion after a neck injury should be made in consultation with a healthcare provider, such as a physical therapist. They will consider various factors, including the type and severity of the injury, your overall health, and your age.

Rest and Immobilization: In the immediate aftermath of a neck injury, rest and immobilization may be necessary. This allows the damaged tissues to heal. For minor strains, this period might be relatively short, while more severe injuries may require longer rest periods.

  • Physical Therapy: In many cases, a structured physical therapy program is recommended to help regain strength and flexibility in the neck. The therapist will guide you through specific exercises that promote motion and healing.
  • Gradual Progression: It’s essential to start motion slowly and gradually. This prevents further damage and allows your body to adapt to movement. Overexertion or sudden jerking motions should be avoided.
  • Pain as a Guide: Pain is often the best indicator of when to increase or decrease motion. While some discomfort may be expected during rehabilitation, sharp or intense pain should be a signal to slow down and consult your healthcare provider.
  • Follow Medical Advice: Your healthcare provider will create a personalized plan for your recovery, including when and how to resume motion. It’s crucial to follow their recommendations diligently.

This was demonstrated very well in the research of Mark Rosenfeld published in the journal Spine. Rosenfeld and colleagues divided people with whiplash injuries into three groups. One group received physical therapy within four days of the accident. Another group received physical therapy within two weeks of the accident. Finally, a third group didn’t receive physical therapy at all. They received advice from a doctor on restricted activity and for stretching to begin after several weeks. At both six-month and three-year follow-up, the physical therapy groups experienced significantly less pain and sick leave. After three years, only the four-day group had flexibility in their necks anywhere close to that of an uninjured control group. Getting active physical therapy introduced as early as possible made functional differences that were evident even three years later. Waiting longer meant patients had a less functional recovery. Interestingly, when you count the cost of time off work, the people who got physical therapy the fastest had the lowest cost of injury – even compared to people who only received advice from a doctor.

The timing of when to begin motion after a neck injury varies depending on the type and severity of the injury. A physical therapy assessment will help you get on the right track for introducing safe movement at the correct pace.

Sources:

  • Rosenfeld M, Gunnarsson R, Borenstein P. Early intervention in whiplash-associated disorders. Spine; 25 (14): 1782-87.
  • Rosenfeld M, Seferiadis A, Carlsson UJ, et al. Active intervention in patients with whiplash associated disorders improves long term prognosis. A randomised controlled clinical trial. Spine; 28: 2491-2498.
  • Rosenfeld M, Seferiadis, Gunnarsson. Active involvement and intervention in patients exposed to whiplash trauma in automobile pressures reduces costs. A randomised controlled clinical trial and health economic evaluation. Spine; 31: 1799-1804.
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