Yep, you read that correct. Not a lower back injury but a neck injury. The mechanism is the same but I wanted to address neck pain in this article. The fact of the matter is: you can strain any muscle or joint doing just about any activity.
In this example a patient of ours was shoveling snow and he turned his head while lifting the shovel to toss some snow off to the side. He mentioned he was careful with his back – bending his knees, using his thigh as a fulcrum, not picking up too heavy of a load, etc. But when he turned his head to the right he immediately felt his muscles on the right side of his neck, from the back and side of the head to the upper back, seize up. He said it felt like a major spasm or cramp.
We've seen this many times before, this same thing can happen in the lower back, or leg as well. People sometimes may describe it as a "Charlie horse" sensation. So why can this happen doing an activity you would not think would cause it?
The answer is this: Sometimes a muscle or a joint is on the verge of getting irritated. Let's say for example the night before the snow storm you were on the computer for hours; your neck was tight after but it seemed to go away. Then you went to bed and got up early to shovel. Half asleep, while everyone was still in bed, you put your jacket and hat and gloves on, braved the cold, and started shoveling.
From the above example you can see how the shoveler's neck was probably still irritated from the night before (it may have gotten worse while sleeping too), then without getting the muscles warmed up a bit (taking a shower, or stretching a bit would have made a huge difference), or even drinking some water (this helps hydrate the body obviously, in this case muscles and joints, helping to prevent injury). In this case the individual probably shocks the body a bit, going out in the cold and starts to do a good amount of physical activity.
Now I'm not saying doing this nor something similar will cause a neck or back injury, and I know that most of us have been guilty of it in the past. However if one makes a habit of doing these kinds of things often you can and will eventually hurt yourself. I'm going to give you some tips you can use to heal the neck once you do strain it, but keep in mind the real goal is to prevent it from happening. Believe me, I've seen people that have strained it so bad or have strained and restrained over and over, that their neck is to the point where it does not heal so easy or fast. So as you can probably guess my first step to healing a strained neck is to prevent it in the first place.
Healing a neck sprain / strain:
1. Try to avoid and prevent it from happening. This especially goes for those of us who have injured their neck before and have an idea of what causes it.
2. Improve or correct spinal alignment. To do this, see a chiropractor, osteopath, or someone that does this professionally. A massage often helps because a good massage can help relax the muscles and ligaments, allowing the spine to shift back in place.
3. Use natural therapies first. Heat and Ice are easy to do, do not cost a thing, and you can use them anytime. It's actually rare that a prescription muscle relaxer is needed.
4. Start doing gentle neck stretches once you start feeling better. This will help elongate the muscles, breaking up muscle adhesions and preventing future strains. The most commonly needed stretch is the lateral head tilt. Slowly bring one ear toward your shoulder until a stretch is felt; hold for 10-20 seconds, relax and repeat.
5. Home muscle massage. Use you finger tips to find those tight spots to massage out. You'll find it's often a "good hurt" type sensation. Once you get a massage or spinal alignment you'll have a better idea of what it feels like.
Use a 6. cervical pillow for sleeping. This also helps relax the muscles by helping to align the spine. It can and should be used a one of your neck pain prevention methods also.
There you have it! Next time you strain your neck or feel a neck spasm about to start, use the tips above. My best recommendation is to use the above list above for prevention or neck spine maintenance if you will. We've all heard it before but I'll say it again: An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure!