Whiplash refers to a neck injury caused by a sudden jerk of the head. Most individuals experience whiplash after a sudden impact such as from an automobile accident. The sudden movement of the head can cause overstretching and damage to the tendons and ligaments in the neck. Symptoms may include severe neck pain, headaches, and pain that shoots down to the arms.
Although it is difficult to predict the outcome, most individuals who experience whiplash tend to recover within a few months.
Treatment options for whiplash are designed to control an individual’s pain and restore neck movement. They depend on an individual’s symptoms and the overall severity of the injury.
Signs and symptoms of whiplash tend to develop within 24 hours of the injury and may include:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Tenderness in the shoulder, upper back or arms
- Numbness in the arms
- Reduced and painful neck movements
- Loss of range of motion in the neck
Some individuals may also experience:
- Impaired vision
- Ringing in the ears
- Sleeping difficulty
- Lack of concentration
- Memory problems
Whiplash occurs when an individual’s head is forcefully thrown backward and then forward. The sudden impact can injure bones in the spine, disks between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves and other tissues of the neck.
The main causes of whiplash include:
- Automobile accidents, where a sudden stopping force of the collision can cause the head to move violently
- Physical abuse or assault, where being struck on the head can cause the head to be forcefully thrown back
- Participation in contact sports, where a sudden blow to the head can cause the head to be jolted backwards
In a small number of cases, whiplash can cause chronic pain that can last for several months or years after the injury has occurred. The prolonged pain and stiffness in the neck can make daily activities difficult to complete and in turn may lead to anxiety and depression in some individuals.
In most cases, whiplash gets better on its own or after minor treatment. The overall goal is to control pain and restore neck movement. Treatment options depend on the severity of an individual’s whiplash injury and symptoms associated with it.
Common treatment methods include:
- Taking over the counter drugs, painkillers, muscle relaxants, or injections to help relieve whiplash pain
- Resting during the first 24 hours after the injury
- Icing and applying heat to the affected area
- Going to physical therapy to regain muscular strength, improve posture and restore normal movement of the neck
- Doing exercises at home designed to restore range of motion in the neck and help individual resume daily activities with no interference (rotating the neck side to side, tilting the head up and down, bending the neck towards the chest and rolling the shoulders)
In cases of severe pain from whiplash, foam collars are used to hold the neck and head upright. It is recommended that an individual use a foam collar only a few hours during the first week after the injury and at night if an individual is experiencing difficulty sleeping.