Whiplash is a neck injury that happens when the head jerks in a sudden and forceful backward, forward or sideway motion causing the neck to move beyond its usual range of movement resulting in the soft tissues (the muscles and tendons) of your neck being overstretched and damaged, although it is also possible for it to result in injury to the bones in the spine, the discs between the bones, ligaments and nerves.
How is whiplash treated?
You may feel inclined to reduce your activity level due to your whiplash. However, it is important that you stay active and do some gentle neck movements and stretches while at the same time avoiding any unnecessary strain on your neck. Your treatment plan will depend on the severity of your whiplash injury, but the main goal is to control your pain, restore your normal range of neck movement and to get you back to your normal activities. Some people may only need over-the-counter medication and at-home care. Others may need more specialised treatments. These can include:
- Ice or heat. Can be applied to the area of the injury. Ice will also help to reduce any swelling you may be experiencing.
- Pain medication. Your doctor may recommend some over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, or prescribe muscle relaxants to loosen tight muscles and treat muscle spasms. For more severe pain, there are certain antidepressant medications that have been shown to relieve nerve pain.
- Physiotherapy pays a crucial role in recovering from whiplash by helping you to regain movement in your neck. You will be provided with a full assessment with treatment including joint mobilisation, soft tissue therapy and/or dry needling. Your physiotherapist will also guide you through exercises and stretches that will safely strengthen your sore neck muscles, improve your posture and restore normal movement.
Whilst soft foam collars were once commonly used for whiplash, they are now not generally recommended as they limit movement and can prolong the recovery process.
What is the prognosis for people with whiplash?
The time it will take for you to recover will depend on the severity of your whiplash. Most people will start to feel better within a few days and will fully recover within a few weeks. For some, however, it may take longer, particularly if there is damage to the nerves or a fracture or dislocation of the neck. Very few people will have long-term complications from a whiplash injury.