What is whiplash?
Whiplash is a neck injury that happens when the head suddenly gets jerked forward and then backward. This injury usually happens from car accidents or sports injuries, or when a baby is shaken too hard.
A whiplash injury can damage different parts of the neck such as the:
- Ligaments – Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that connect bones to other bones.
- Bones – The neck has 7 bones (called “vertebrae”) that are stacked on top of each other.
- Discs – Discs are cushions that sit between the bones.
- Nerves – A bundle of nerves (called the spinal cord) travels down the middle of the spine. Nerves branch off from the spinal cord to all parts of the body.
- Muscles – Muscles hold the head up and make the neck move.
What are the symptoms of whiplash?
Common symptoms include:
- Neck pain
- Muscle tightness or spasm
- Being unable to move your neck or turn your head
- A headache, especially in the back of the head
Should I see a doctor?
You should see a doctor if:
- Your symptoms are bothersome or get worse.
- Your symptoms don’t improve after you treat them at home for a few weeks.
- You have numbness or weakness in your arms or legs.
Will I need tests?
Your doctor should be able to tell if you have whiplash by learning about your symptoms and doing an exam.
Some people with whiplash will need tests. Depending on your symptoms and how long they have lasted, your doctor might do an X-ray, MRI scan, or CT scan. These are imaging tests that can create pictures of the inside of your body.
How is whiplash treated?
Whiplash usually gets better on its own within 2 to 3 weeks. But some people have symptoms for longer.
To help with your pain and symptoms, you can:
- Take a pain-relieving medicine –
- Practice good posture – Don’t carry bags by wearing their shoulder straps on your shoulder. Also, avoid sitting for too many hours at a time. When you do sit, sit up straight and keep your shoulders back. When you sleep, keep your head and neck in line with your body. You might have less pain if you sleep on your back with pillows under your thighs.
- Do neck stretches and exercises – Your doctor will show you which stretches and exercises to do, and tell you how often to do them.
What if my symptoms are severe or don’t get better?
If your symptoms are severe or don’t get better, your doctor might recommend:
- Medicines – Your doctor can prescribe strong pain medicines. He or she can also prescribe medicines to relax your muscles (called “muscle relaxants”) for when you sleep.
- Physical therapy (working with an exercise expert)
- Cervical joint injections- studies have shown that the cervical facet joints are the most commonly injured structure in whiplash type injuries. A diagnostic block can help further prove this.
If these treatments don’t help, your doctor will talk with you about other possible treatments.
What treatments are NOT helpful?
Most doctors do not recommend that people wear soft neck collars, especially for long periods of time. If a neck collar eases your pain, wear it for less than 3 hours at a time. Wearing a neck collar for too long can make your neck muscles get too weak.
Other treatments that are NOT helpful include surgery or a treatment that pulls on the head to lengthen the neck (called “cervical traction”).