Home management of whiplash pain often involves cold and heat therapy, over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, and exercises to help regain your neck function.

Whiplash is a neck injury commonly associated with rear-end car accidents and sports injuries. Rapid and forceful, up-and-down bending movements of the head and neck cause whiplash.

Whiplash usually resolves with conservative, at-home treatments. In this article, we detail how to treat whiplash at home.

When to see a doctor for whiplash

If your whiplash is due to trauma, like an accident or assault, it makes sense to see a healthcare professional. They can rule out serious injuries such as fractures, provide you with a personalized at-home care plan, or prescribe physical therapy, pain medication, or muscle relaxants.

Whiplash may cause symptoms right away or within several days. Seek medical attention for whiplash symptoms such as:

  • pain, burning, or a prickling sensation in your neck, shoulders, or back
  • blurry vision
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • problems with memory
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • fatigue
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You can use both heat and cold to reduce whiplash symptoms and support healing.

Apply cold compresses or ice packs for 15 minutes every 2–3 hours for 7–10 days. Using cold on the affected area restricts blood flow to muscles, tendons, and irritated nerve roots. This reduces swelling, inflammation, and pain.

Do not apply heat until inflammation and swelling are no longer present.

Once the swelling subsides, try alternating heat and cold for 15 minutes every 2–3 hours. Heat works by increasing blood flow to the area. This soothes aching muscles, supports relaxation, and promotes healing.

When using heat and cold therapy, use your judgment. If you get more relief from one or the other, stick with what works best for you.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication can help reduce mild to moderate whiplash pain. It’s essential to follow package directions and not overuse OTC pain drugs. If they don’t provide you with enough relief, let a doctor know.

Common OTC medications include acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and aspirin.

It’s important not to combine OTC pain medication with prescription pain meds.

NSAIDs may help reduce inflammation as well as pain. However, they can irritate your stomach lining. If you have a gastrointestinal condition such as diverticulitis or an ulcer, check with a doctor before using.

You should also avoid NSAIDs if you are taking blood-thinning medication.

Home exercises can help restore full function and range of motion to your head and neck after a whiplash injury. It can also help support blood flow, build muscle strength, and reduce pain.

A healthcare professional may recommend specific exercises for you to try at home. These include simple movements, like tilting your head from side to side or rolling your shoulders.

For ongoing or severe pain, a healthcare professional may prescribe physical therapy. A physical therapist may use treatments like massage and electrotherapy to relieve stiffness and pain in your neck. They will also guide you through multiple stretches and exercises, such as chin tucks.

To do a chin tuck, follow these steps:

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight, and your face pointed straight ahead.
  • Slowly lower your chin to your chest. You should feel a stretch in the back of your neck. If you feel pain, don’t force the stretch.
  • Maintain your neck in a stretched position for 30–40 seconds. If you feel pain or your shoulders start to sag forward, gently release the stretch.
  • Slowly lift your chin back to its original position, with your face pointing straight ahead.
  • Repeat five times. Work up to 10 repetitions.

There isn’t a significant body of data about the effectiveness of alternative treatments, such as homeopathy or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units, for whiplash.

Still, you may find that alternative treatments such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong may help reduce pain and stiffness.

Alternative treatments may help most when added to physical therapy or other medical care.

Avoiding activities that might worsen your injury or prolong your recovery is essential.

It usually takes about 6 weeks to regain full neck function. During that time, it’s best to avoid movement that could strain your neck, such as:

  • lifting heavy items
  • driving
  • certain sports like swimming, tennis, and contact sports
  • amusement park rides

Still, it’s important not to become completely sedentary. Exercising your neck is a vital component of recovery.

Don’t let neck pain stop you from participating in daily life. You may benefit from wearing a soft foam cervical collar to make everyday movements easier.

How long does it take to recover from whiplash?

Each person’s recovery is different. Mild injuries often resolve within a few days to a few weeks. Moderate to severe whiplash takes longer to heal.

Most people recover within 3 months, but some feel stiffness, pain, or discomfort for longer.

You can aid your recovery by avoiding activities that worsen whiplash and by following the advice of healthcare professionals.

Will whiplash heal on its own without treatment?

When not properly treated, whiplash can cause serious, long lasting injuries to muscles and tissues in the neck. This may be more likely to occur in certain age groups, such as children and older adults.

Mild whiplash can heal on its own over time. Simple at-home treatments like using heat and cold compresses can significantly quicken recovery.

How should you sleep if you have whiplash?

Try not to sleep on a too-soft or too-firm surface that doesn’t cradle your neck comfortably. Consider using an orthopedic pillow or sleeping with your neck resting on a rolled-up towel for maximum head and neck support.

Whiplash is a neck injury often resulting from rear-end car accidents, physical assaults, or sports injuries.

The extent of your injury will determine which treatments are best for you and how long it may take to recover.

At-home treatments, such as OTC pain medication and hot and cold compresses, can help recovery and reduce symptoms. Working with a physical therapist can also help.