This common neck injury often is 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 crashes. But whiplash also can 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 medicine and exercise. However, some people have long-lasting neck pain and other complications.
Symptoms of whiplash most often start within days of the injury. They may include:
Some people also have:
See your healthcare professional if you have neck pain or other whiplash symptoms after a car accident, sports injury or other injury. It's important to get a quick diagnosis. This is to rule out broken bones or other damage that can cause or worsen symptoms.
Whiplash most often occurs when the head is quickly thrown backward and then forward with force. This often happens as a result of a rear-end car crash. This motion can cause damage to the muscles and tissues of the neck.
Risk factors for whiplash include:
Most people who have whiplash feel better within a few weeks. They don't seem to have lasting effects from the injury. But some people have pain for months or years after the injury.
It's hard to predict how recovery from whiplash might go. As a rule, you may be more likely to have ongoing pain if your first symptoms were intense, started quickly and included:
The following risk factors have been linked to a worse outcome:
Your healthcare professional will ask about the event and your symptoms. You also may be asked questions that help your healthcare professional understand how bad your symptoms are and how often they occur. Your healthcare professional also will want to know how well you can do everyday tasks.
During the exam your healthcare professional will need to touch and move your head, neck and arms. You will be asked to move and do simple tasks to check the:
A whiplash injury doesn't show on imaging tests. But imaging tests can 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 need only medicines available without a prescription and at-home care. Others may need prescription medicines, pain treatment or physical therapy.
Your healthcare professional may suggest one or more of the following treatments to lessen pain:
Your healthcare professional might prescribe 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 regular activities. You might be told to put moist heat on the painful area or take a warm shower before exercise.
Exercises may include:
If you have ongoing whiplash pain or need help with range-of-motion exercises, physical therapy might help you feel better and prevent further injury. Your physical therapist will guide you through exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve posture and restore movement.
In some cases, a procedure called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may be used. TENS sends a mild electric current to the skin. Limited research suggests this treatment might ease neck pain and improve muscle strength for a short time.
The number of physical therapy sessions depends on the person's needs. Your physical therapist also can create an exercise program for you to do at home.
Soft foam collars were once used for whiplash injuries to hold the neck and head still. But studies have shown that keeping the neck still for long periods can decrease muscle strength and slow recovery.
But use of a collar to limit movement may help reduce pain soon after your injury. And it may help you sleep at night. Experts don't agree on how to use a collar, though. Some experts suggest using it no more than 72 hours. Others say it may be worn up to three hours a day for a few weeks. Your healthcare professional can tell you how to 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 get care on the scene or in an emergency room. However, a whiplash injury may not cause symptoms right away. If you have neck pain and other symptoms after an injury, see a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
Be ready to describe in detail the event that may have caused your symptoms and to answer questions, such as: