Key Points about Whiplash
- Car accidents, contact sports, and physical abuse are common causes of whiplash.
- Symptoms of whiplash range from pain and stiffness in your neck to trouble sleeping and headaches.
- Your doctor can diagnose whiplash in a clinic visit by evaluating your symptoms. In some cases, your doctor will use diagnostic imaging to determine if you have a more severe cause of your pain.
- Rest, ice, and OTC medications are the first-line therapies for whiplash. If your case is more severe, you may need injections, prescription medications, or physical therapy.
- Most patients fully recover within three months.
Whiplash is caused by a forceful forward and backward motion of the head. Car accidents, contact sports, and physical abuse are common causes of whiplash.
While most people recover quickly after developing whiplash, others experience long-term chronic pain.
Whiplash can also be called a neck sprain or strain.
You can develop whiplash if you experience a forceful forward or backward motion of the head. Activities that can cause whiplash include:
- Car accident
- Impact from a sporting activity such as football or soccer
- Physical abuse
Typically, symptoms of whiplash develop within 24 hours of an injury. Signs or symptoms include:
- Stiffness and/or pain in your neck
- Pain that worsens with neck movement
- Decreased neck range of motion
- Pain, tingling or numbness in your upper back, shoulders, and arms
- Numbness or tingling in arms
Less common symptoms of whiplash include:
- Blurry vision
- Trouble sleeping
- Ear ringing
- Problems remembering and concentrating
- Anxiety or depression
Although most patients experience a full recovery after recovering from whiplash, others may experience chronic pain. Typically, the pain is caused by damage to the discs, ligaments, and joints in the neck.
Whiplash risk factors
Whiplash is most commonly caused by rear-end and side-impact car crashes. People who drive aggressively are more likely to develop whiplash.
While all cases of whiplash cannot be prevented, it can be prevented in some cases by following these guidelines:
- Purchase a vehicle with a good rear-crash safety rating
- Do not tailgate when driving a vehicle
- Sit upright in your car seat
- Adjust the seat header to be no more than 3 inches from your head
- Wear protective gear when participating in contact sports
Your doctor can diagnose whiplash during a clinic visit. In most cases, your doctor will take a medical history and perform an exam to determine the cause of your symptoms. During the physical exam, your doctor will check your range of motion, reflexes, and tenderness in the neck and shoulders.
Your doctor will likely order an imaging test such as an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan to understand if you have more severe damage is in your bones or muscles, ligaments, or soft tissues.
The goals of whiplash treatment are to relieve your pain, improve your range of motion, and get you back to your normal activity level.
Treatments for whiplash include:
- Rest and ice the affected area for approximately 24 hours and then gradually try gentle exercises.
- OTC medications — Medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen effectively relieve pain in many patients.
- Prescription medications — Prescription medication may be necessary for relieving pain or relaxing your muscles.
- Injections to relieve pain during physical therapy.
- Physical therapy — In more severe cases, physical therapy may be necessary to strengthen your muscles and restore movement.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) — TENS therapy can help alleviate neck pain by applying a mild electric current directly to the affected area.
When to seek care
If you have severe neck pain or other symptoms of whiplash after a car accident, sports injury or fall, go to the emergency room as soon as possible. It is important to seek care as quickly as possible, so your doctor can rule out any other severe issues.
Your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for you. Follow your doctor's treatment and recovery instructions carefully.
Generally, people experience full symptom relief within three months of the injury. If you continue to experience severe pain more than three months after your injury, call your doctor to determine the next steps. Your doctor may have to try more aggressive treatments or alternative therapy.