Whiplash occurs when a person’s head moves backward and then forward very suddenly with great force. This injury is most common following a rear-end car collision. It can also result from physical abuse, sports injuries, or amusement park rides.
Whiplash results when the soft tissues (the muscles and ligaments) of your neck extend beyond the typical range of motion. Your symptoms might not be apparent for a while, so it’s important to pay attention to any physical changes for a few days following any accident.
Although whiplash is thought of as a relatively mild condition, it can cause long-term pain and discomfort.
Whiplash occurs when the muscles in your neck suffer a strain because of a rapid movement backward and then forward. The sudden motion causes your neck’s tendons and ligaments to stretch and tear, resulting in whiplash.
Whiplash can occur from a number of activities. The most common are:
- car accidents
- physical abuse (being punched or shaken)
- contact sports that involve tackling or physical contact (such as football, boxing, and karate)
- horseback riding
- cycling accidents
- falls in which the head violently jerks backward
- blows to the head with a heavy object
Symptoms usually appear within 24 hours following the incident that caused the whiplash. Sometimes symptoms may develop after a few days and can last several weeks. Common symptoms include:
- neck pain and stiffness
- headaches (specifically at the base of the skull)
- blurred vision
- constant weariness
Less common symptoms associated with long-term chronic whiplash include:
- problems with concentration and memory
- ringing in the ears
- inability to sleep well
- chronic pain in the neck, shoulders or head
You should follow up with your doctor immediately if your symptoms spread to your shoulders or arms, if moving your head is painful, or if you have numbness or weakness in your arms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most mild to moderate cases of whiplash can be treated at home using over-the-counter drugs, ice, and other remedies. However, you should seek medical help if you experience the following symptoms:
- pain or stiffness in the neck that goes away and then returns
- severe neck pain
- pain, numbness, or tingling in your shoulders, arms, or legs
- any issues with your bladder or bowels
- localized weakness in an arm or leg
In many cases, whiplash is the result of a car crash or other type of accident. If you want to press legal charges against the person responsible, it’s important to seek medical care following the incident. Your doctor will be able to document your condition, so you can seek damages to cover your healthcare costs.
Your doctor will normally ask you certain questions about your injury, such as how it occurred, where you feel pain, and whether the pain is dull, shooting, or sharp. They may also do a physical examination to check your range of motion and look for areas of tenderness.
Your doctor might order an X-ray to ensure your pain isn’t connected to any other type of injury or degenerative disease like arthritis.
Other tests, such as computerized tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), will allow your doctor to assess any damage or inflammation in the soft tissues, spinal cord, or nerves.
The treatments for whiplash are relatively simple. Doctors will often prescribe over-the-counter pain medication like Tylenol or aspirin. More severe injuries may require prescription painkillers, and muscle relaxants to reduce muscle spasms.
In addition to medication, physical therapy plays a crucial role in recovery. You may want to apply ice or heat to the injured area and practice simple exercises to build strength and flexibility in your neck. Practicing good posture and learning relaxation techniques to keep your neck muscles from straining also contribute to a faster recovery.
You might be given a foam collar to keep your neck stable.
Collars should not be worn for more than three hours at a time, and should only be used the first couple of days after your injury.
You may also want to try alternative remedies to treat the pain from your whiplash injury. Some of the remedies include:
- acupuncture (although no studies definitively confirm acupuncture’s ability to ease neck pain)
- chiropractic care
- massage (this may relieve some of the tension in the neck muscles)
- electronic nerve stimulation (this gentle electric current may help reduce neck pain)
Very few people experience any long-term complications from whiplash. Usually, the recovery time is anywhere from a few days to several weeks. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, most people recover fully within three months.
Some people with whiplash do experience chronic pain or headaches for years following their accident. Doctors may be able to trace this pain to damaged neck joints, disks, and ligaments. However, more typically, chronic pain following a whiplash injury has no medical explanation.