Often associated with car accidents, whiplash is a neck injury caused by sudden, rapid back-and-forth movements. It may also result from any type of trauma that affects muscles and ligaments in the neck, including sports-related injuries and hard falls. It’s usually a temporary discomfort, although the extent of any resulting pain will depend on how soft tissues in the neck were affected.
Do You Have Whiplash?
Sometimes categorized as neck strain or sprain, whiplash often results in some degree of neck pain that’s felt immediately after the injury. Stiffness in the neck may be accompanied by pain in the shoulders, arms, chest, or head. Symptoms associated with whiplash may develop several hours after the initial jolt or impact or become progressively more noticeable within a day or two. Possible signs of whiplash may also include:
- Headaches and dizziness
- Pain triggered by neck movements
- Weakness extending to arms, hands, or legs
- Difficulty or inability to move or turn the head
The process of diagnosing whiplash involves a physical exam and an evaluation of symptoms. An X-ray may be done to ensure there are no broken bones in the cervical spine (neck). Additional image testing with an MRI or CT scan may be necessary to determine the extent of soft tissue damage.
How is Whiplash Treated?
Initial treatment of whiplash often involves home remedies and over-the-counter medications, including anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and pain relievers such as acetaminophen. Modifying activities, being mindful of neck movements, and applying heat or ice may also ease discomfort. Application of heat or ice should be limited to about 15-20 minutes off and on throughout the day.
When to Seek Medical Treatment
Surgery is rarely necessary for whiplash unless there is confirmed structural damage to the neck, such as a damaged cervical disc or a fracture. Anytime neck pain lingers for more than a few days or gets worse instead of better, it’s best to seek medical treatment, even if it’s just to confirm that there is no serious neck injury involved.
Whiplash isn’t entirely preventable, although using a headrest while driving and wearing properly fitting equipment while playing sports may reduce the risk of sustaining a neck injury. Maintaining strong and flexible neck muscles, however, may minimize potential soft tissue damage. Some patients benefit from gentle neck stretches to restore range-of-motion and increase muscle strength. Complete recovery from whiplash usually takes a few months.