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Whiplash Injury: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

7 Mins read

Chances are, you may have heard of the neck injury called whiplash. This condition is most commonly caused by car accidents, but it can also be caused by other types of accidents or trauma. Whiplash is a common concern when you’re involved in a car accident where you were rear-ended by another vehicle. Whiplash receives its name from the motion your head experiences when it abruptly (and unnaturally) whips due to a strong force. Whiplash occurs when your head is rapidly whipped forward and forcibly thrown backward.

The swift, vigorous, involuntary and atypical motion of whiplash could result in soft tissue injuries to the neck, as well as muscle injuries and injuries to the disks, bones, and nerves in the spine. You have every right to feel concerned about whiplash after an accident. Research suggests that failure to address a whiplash injury could result in complications such as difficulties in mobility and range-of-motion due to residual pain, or chronic neck and back pain. You must not neglect a whiplash injury, even if it does not seem too severe. Learn more about whiplash below, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment. 

What Causes Whiplash?

Whiplash can be caused by sporting injuries or horseback riding accidents, but this is less common. Whiplash is most often caused by a car accident, such as being rear-ended. Whiplash can result due to a sudden and involuntary forward-backward jerking motion of your head that is caused by great force. Bear in mind that the seatbelt prevents you from following the full force of motion in a collision. The seatbelt in a car typically holds the torso steady, but not the head and neck. In an accident, the colliding forces could push the head back and forth rapidly, straining the neck and potentially causing a whiplash injury. 

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Of course, relatively speaking, whiplash is a small price to pay for surviving a car accident. It’s one of the most common car accident injuries, and that’s why it’s also one of the most common personal injury lawsuits. When you’re rear-ended by another vehicle on the road, for example, you’re not at fault. This is why many people who suffer a whiplash injury in this manner end up seeking a settlement with the help of a personal injury lawyer.

It’s best to stay restrained by your seatbelt than to hit something hard like the dashboard, or fly through the car windshield and suffer multiple physical injuries or even death. Whiplash is the one of the less severe car accident injuries. Whiplash is sometimes referred to as a neck strain or neck sprain. However, these two are umbrella terms that also include other types of neck injuries. 

Aside from car accidents, you could also get whiplash from the following less common causes:

  • Sports accidents especially from high-impact contact sports such as boxing, karate, football, and soccer.
  • Horseback riding accidents.
  • Traumatic falls where the head jerks violently forward and backward.
  • Physical assault such as being punched, shaking, or a blow to the head.
  • Amusement park rides like roller coasters and other gravity-defying rides can sometimes cause subtle whiplash injuries.

Symptoms of Whiplash

Whiplash is typically characterized by a collection of signs and symptoms. These uncomfortable symptoms usually occur after injury, generally to the neck area. Damage is often found in soft tissue, ligaments, discs, joints in between vertebrae, cervical muscles, or nerve roots. 

A person with a whiplash injury, for example, might have lumbar joint dysfunction, soft tissue damage, and tight neck muscles. This can cause chronic neck pain that requires treatment. 

Some people immediately feel symptoms after the impact of their accident. However, for others, symptoms could be delayed for 24 hours or even longer. People suffering from whiplash may experience one or more of the following symptoms after the initial trauma, or within the first couple of days post-injury:

  • Pain in the neck area
  • Neck stiffness and limited range-of-motion
  • Pain in the shoulder area such as shoulder blades
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Lower back pain
  • Numbness or pain in arm (or hands)
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory issues
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability

Again, your symptoms may not appear immediately. That’s why it’s essential to pay attention to physical changes and observe your demeanor following a car accident or any other injury to the head. In most cases, studies say that whiplash injuries are typically mild and not life-threatening. Severe whiplash injuries are less common.

However, you have every right to feel concerned if whiplash happens to you. It can cause chronic pain. If you ignore your whiplash injury instead of addressing it by getting diagnosis and treatment, whiplash could result in complications such as long-term, chronic neck or back pain as well as reduced range of motion in the neck and shoulder area.

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Whiplash Diagnosis

If you feel discomfort or pain in the neck, shoulders or back, your doctor will inquire how the injury happened and ask you to rate the pain. Is it a sharp, shooting, intermittent, or dull pain? Your physician may check for a range-of-motion issues, or palpate the area for damage and search for tenderness. If there’s cause for concern, your physician may refer you to an orthopedic doctor or “orthopod,” a musculoskeletal specialist that focuses on bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and discs. 

The orthopedic doctor might order an x-ray to rule out any other injuries or degenerative problems such as arthritis. Moreover, specialized imaging like a CT scan or an MRI could be requested in more severe cases, since soft tissue injuries are not visible in x-rays. The scans could show the extent of the damage and severity of inflammation in soft tissues, nerves, and the spinal cord. It may also be used to detect if brain injury is present. 

A chiropractor can also help with a whiplash diagnosis, by checking for lumbar joint dysfunction and spinal alignment issues. They’ll also be able to help assess how severe the whiplash injury is.

Other less common diagnostic tests are diffuse tensor imaging (DTI) or positron emission tomography (PET). They reveal the extent of injury to the brain and other parts. However, these two tests are rarely used and reserved for severe cases. 

Treatments Options for Whiplash

Most mild and moderate cases of whiplash could be treated at home for the most part, perhaps including some visits to a massage therapist, athletic therapist, or chiropractor.

At-home treatment of whiplash would include over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, special stretches, and being sure to maintain good posture. An ice pack could also be used at home to lessen the swelling and make the area feel numb within the first 24 hours after the trauma. Chronic neck pain can be relieved a bit by using heat packs on the sore area.

In the past, the standard treatment for whiplash was to immobilize the area with a cervical collar for a period of time. However, now gentle movements and athletic therapy are encouraged, so the neck can regain mobility and strength. 

Your doctor may even recommend inversion table therapy, which helps stretch your neck and back.

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See a doctor if you’re in severe pain, you can’t move your head or neck, or if you feel worsening pain in your neck, shoulders, and back that affects mobility and daily functioning. These symptoms may sometimes come with localized weakness in your arms and legs, along with bladder or bowel issues. 

For more severe whiplash injuries with acute pain, treatment includes prescription pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, and muscle relaxants. On top of that, the following therapies may be suggested for whiplash: 

  • Stretches: Certain stretches for the neck, shoulders and back that your physical therapist shows you can help combat the neck pain caused by whiplash, especially if done regularly. Heat the area with a heat pack before stretching if you can. Inversion therapy also helps stretch the neck and back, as inversion tables help encourage blood flow, stretch stiff or sore muscles, and give your spine a much-needed rest in the form of a great stretch.
  • Physical therapy: A doctor may recommend that you see a physical therapist (PT) for rehabilitation. This could help you learn stretches, get manual therapy on the neck area, and more. Your physical therapist will likely also show you how to maintain proper posture which is important when you have a neck injury.
  • Athletic therapy or active rehab: Speak to your doctor about athletic therapy or active rehab. This is when a kinesiologist acts as your athletic therapist and personal trainer, helping you exercise and regain strength and mobility in the area. Weak neck, shoulder and back muscles can exacerbate a whiplash injury.
  • At-Home Exercises: Certain home exercises for the neck to build strength and flexibility may be recommended by your specialist post-trauma. 
  • Chiropractic care: A certified chiropractor could use realignment techniques to treat muscle dysfunction, relieve pressure, and help fix issues in your neck, shoulders, and back. 
  • Acupuncture: Relieve blocked pathways that result in pain with the help of acupuncture. This form of Traditional Chinese Medicine helps realign your chi or energy and unblocks your meridians for pain relief. 
  • Nerve stimulation: You could also try electrical nerve stimulation wherein a gentle electric current is pulsed through the affected area to reduce pain and regain function. 
  • Foam collar: Some doctors still recommend wearing a foam collar immediately after injury. It’s typically advised to wear this collar for no more than 3 hours per day. These days, the previous treatments are more commonly advised than the foam collar.
  • Massage therapy: A neck injury can cause muscle tightness, soreness, and general discomfort that a deep-tissue massage could help alleviate. It’s important to see a Registered Massage Therapist or neuromuscular massage therapist.

The prognosis for whiplash is generally quite good, with most people recovering after the initial trauma, and getting pretty close to ‘back to normal’. Healing time could be weeks, months, or years, depending on the person’s general health at the time of injury, and the severity of the injury. According to NINDS or the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, people who suffer from whiplash typically attain full recovery by 3 months. In fact, only few people suffer any serious long-term complications. 

If you have been in an accident that resulted in a whiplash injury, seek guidance from your doctor if you feel acute, debilitating pain that impacts the quality of your life. If your pain is already interfering with your sleep or your normal activities, you don’t have to suffer in silence. As we’ve discussed, many treatment options are available.

Your doctor can help you come up with a pain management program and rehabilitation program. Conventional treatment modalities like pain killers and physical therapy are often complemented by massage therapy with a Registered Massage Therapist and active rehab with a kinesiologist.

You could also take a CircleDNA test to get DNA insights into which treatment option might work best with your genetic makeup. For instance, certain types of massages are not recommended for people who bruise easily or get fractured easily due to bone health issues. CircleDNA provides you with hundreds of reports about yourself, all based on your unique DNA. 


References

  1. The Long-term Impact of Whiplash Injuries on Patient Symptoms and the Associated Degenerative Changes Detected Using MRI: A Prospective 20-year Follow-up Study Comparing Patients with Whiplash-associated Disorders with Asymptomatic Subjects (Kota Watanabe, Kenshi Daimon, Hirokazu Fujiwara , Yuji Nishiwaki , Eijiro Okada et. al) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33394988/
  2. When to Hire a Personal Injury Lawyer vs. Handling Your Own Claim (Denmon Pearlman Law) https://denmonpearlman.com/when-to-hire-a-personal-injury-lawyer/
  3. WHIPS–Volvo’s Whiplash Protection Study (L Jakobsson, B Lundell, H Norin, I Isaksson-Hellman) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10688487/
  4. Whiplash (National Institute of Neurological) https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/whiplash
Erica Gordon
132 posts

About author
Erica Gordon is the Managing Editor and Director of Content at Circle Magazine. Erica majored in Psychology at UBC and has since founded The Babe Report and followed her passion for writing and journalism, with a focus on health and travel writing.
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