Whiplash is a common neck injury, often resulting from a car crash. But other trauma can cause it, too. Know the symptoms and how to treat it.
Whiplash is a neck injury due to forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck, like the cracking of a whip.
Whiplash is commonly caused by rear-end car accidents. But whiplash can also result from sports accidents, physical abuse and other types of traumas, such as a fall. Whiplash may be called a neck sprain or strain, but these terms also include other types of neck injuries.
Most people with whiplash get better within a few weeks by following a treatment plan that includes pain medication and exercise. However, some people have chronic neck pain and other long-lasting complications.
Signs and symptoms of whiplash usually develop within days of the injury, and may include:
Some people also have:
See your doctor if you have any neck pain or other whiplash symptoms after a car accident, sports injury or other traumatic injury. It's important to get a prompt and accurate diagnosis and to rule out broken bones or other damage that can cause or worsen symptoms.
Whiplash typically occurs when your head is forcefully and quickly thrown backward and then forward. This motion can injure bones in the spine, disks between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves and other tissues of the neck.
A whiplash injury may result from:
Most people who have whiplash feel better within a few weeks and don't seem to have any lasting effects from the injury. However, some people continue to have pain for several months or years after the injury occurred.
It is difficult to predict how each person with whiplash may recover. In general, you may be more likely to have chronic pain if your first symptoms were intense, started rapidly and included:
The following risk factors have been linked to a worse outcome:
Your doctor will ask questions about the event and your symptoms. You also may be asked questions that help your doctor understand how severe your symptoms are and how often they occur. Your doctor will also want to know how well you can perform normal everyday tasks.
During the exam your doctor will need to touch and move your head, neck and arms. You will be asked to move and perform simple tasks so that your doctor can check the:
A whiplash injury isn't apparent on imaging tests. But your doctor will likely order one or more imaging tests to rule out other conditions that could be making your neck pain worse. Imaging tests include:
The goals of whiplash treatment are to:
Your treatment plan will depend on the extent of your whiplash injury. Some people only need over-the-counter medication and at-home care. Others may need prescription medication, specialized pain treatment or physical therapy.
Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments to lessen pain:
Your doctor will likely prescribe a series of stretching and movement exercises for you to do at home. These exercises can help restore range of motion in your neck and get you back to your normal activities. Applying moist heat to the painful area or taking a warm shower may be recommended before exercise.
Exercises may include:
If you have ongoing whiplash pain or need assistance with range-of-motion exercises, your doctor may recommend that you see a physical therapist. Physical therapy can help you feel better and may prevent further injury. Your physical therapist will guide you through exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve posture and restore normal movement.
In some cases, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may be used. TENS applies a mild electric current to the skin. Limited research suggests this treatment may temporarily ease neck pain and improve muscle strength.
The number of physical therapy sessions needed will vary from person to person. Your physical therapist can also create a personalized exercise routine that you can do at home.
Soft foam cervical collars were once commonly used for whiplash injuries to hold the neck and head still. However, studies have shown that keeping the neck still for long periods of time can decrease muscle strength and interfere with recovery.
Still, use of a collar to limit movement may help reduce pain soon after your injury, and may help you sleep at night. Recommendations for using a collar vary though. Some experts suggest limiting use to no more than 72 hours, while others say it may be worn up to three hours a day for a few weeks. Your doctor can instruct you on how to properly use the collar, and for how long.
Nontraditional therapies have been tried to treat whiplash pain, but research about how well they work is limited. Some include:
If you've been in a car accident, you might receive care on the scene or in an emergency room. However, a whiplash injury may not cause symptoms immediately. If you have neck pain and other symptoms after an injury, see your doctor or an urgent care center as soon as possible.
Be prepared to describe in detail the event that may have caused your symptoms and to answer the following questions.