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.
What causes whiplash?
The most common cause of whiplash is as a result of a car accident, most particularly being rear-ended, or through a side impact. However, any impact or blow that causes your head to jerk forward or backward can cause it. This sort of damage can be the result of a sudden blow to the head while playing contact sports, by a fall or from physical abuse, such as being punched or violently shaken.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of whiplash can vary greatly. You may notice the discomfort and pain within a few hours of the injury, or it may take several days or longer for them to develop. Common symptoms are:
- Neck pain and stiffness including a loss in range of movement, with pain worsening when you move your neck
- Headaches, usually starting at the base of the skull that can radiate towards the forehead
- Muscle spasms
- Tenderness and pain in the upper back, shoulder and arms
- Pins and needles, numbness or pain in the arms and hands
- Constant weariness and fatigue
- Vertigo and dizziness
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Mood changes, such as anxiety and depression.
When should you see your doctor?
If you are experiencing pain and other whiplash symptoms following a car accident, sports injury or through some other trauma, it is important that you see your doctor. It is vital that you get a diagnosis as soon as possible, so that any other more serious damage such as a broken bone is ruled out and that the injury can get treated.
How is whiplash diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you questions about your injury, your symptoms and how severe they are, and how the injury was sustained, checking also your neck for its range of movement, what movement causes you pain and any other tenderness in your neck, shoulders and back. You may be sent for an x-ray or CT scan to rule out any bone fractures or dislocation and possibly an MRI to assess any damage to the soft tissues, spinal cord, discs, ligaments or nerves, although this are not always required.
What treatment is available?
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.
Early treatment of your whiplash injury will ensure that your recovery is not prolonged. If you are concerned that you may have whiplash, it is important that you see your doctor for diagnosis. He will assist you with advice on pain relief and, if necessary, refer you to a physiotherapist for a treatment plan.