Whiplash occurs when a person’s head moves backward and then forward 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 their typical range of motion. Your symptoms might not appear for a while, so it’s important to pay attention to any physical changes for a few days following any accident.
Whiplash is thought of as a relatively mild condition, but 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.
Some things that can cause whiplash include:
- car accidents
- physical abuse, such as being punched or shaken
- contact sports 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 after the incident that caused the whiplash. Sometimes, symptoms may develop after a few days. They can last for 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 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
- moving your head is painful
- you have numbness or weakness in your arms
Most mild to moderate cases of whiplash can be treated at home using over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, ice, and other remedies. However, you should seek medical help if you have 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
Your doctor will normally ask you 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 exam to check your range of motion and look for areas of tenderness.
Other tests, such as CT scans and MRI, will allow your doctor to assess any damage or inflammation in the soft tissues, spinal cord, or nerves. Certain imaging studies, such as diffuse tensor imaging (DTI) or positron emission tomography (PET scan), may be helpful, especially when there may be a brain injury. These tests will help localize and measure the extent of an injury to the brain or other areas.
The treatments for whiplash are relatively simple. Doctors will often prescribe an OTC 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. Practice good posture and learn relaxation techniques to keep your neck muscles from straining and to help with recovery.
You might also be given a foam collar to keep your neck stable. Collars should not be worn for more than three hours at a time. They should only be used the first couple of days after your injury, as well.
You may also want to try alternative remedies to treat pain. Some include:
- chiropractic care
- massage, which may relieve some of the tension in the neck muscles
- electronic nerve stimulation, which involves a gentle electric current that may help reduce neck pain
- acupuncture, though no studies confirm acupuncture’s ability to ease neck pain
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. But chronic pain following a whiplash injury typically has no medical explanation.
However, very few people have any long-term complications from whiplash. Usually, 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.