Whiplash is often perceived as a minor injury. Nothing more than a twinge in the neck after a fender-bender. However, a whiplash injury can have long-term health effects, if it’s not treated properly.
In this article, we review the causes, symptoms, and treatment of whiplash injury and we guide you through how the proper exercises can help you manage a whiplash injury successfully .
What is whiplash
Whiplash is a common injury of the neck. More than 3 million cases of whiplash are reported every year.1 Despite this, it is an injury often misunderstood and misdiagnosed.2
In this guide, we will walk you through the typical causes and symptoms of a whiplash injury, before we introduce you to some of Injurymap’s exercises that can help you towards a speedy recovery.
Looking for a recovery program for whiplash. Try the Injurymap exercise app now.
What does it mean to have whiplash?
Causes of whiplash
Symptoms of whiplash
Diagnosis of whiplash
When to see a doctor
What happens if whiplash goes untreated?
Whiplash is treatable – exercise is the key
A whiplash injury is a result of the neck moving forward and backward, suddenly and forcefully. These movements most often occur during a rear-end car collision. Usually, whiplash is not a life-threatening injury,2 but proper treatment is needed to prevent longstanding symptoms and psychological complications.
If you or a loved one has suffered a whiplash injury, you should not take it lightly. But you don’t have to worry either. Most people can recover without complications. You can speed up your recovery by starting an exercise program soon after the injury. Quick and appropriate treatment of a whiplash injury can reduce the risk of developing long-term neck pain.1
In the following, Injurymap brings you all the information you need to manage whiplash. Remember to always seek medical attention for symptoms that are severe or do not improve with home remedies.
Whiplash is not a medical condition. It is an informal name for neck sprain and strain.3 The name comes from the sudden movement of the neck during an accident.
A whiplash injury occurs when the neck moves quickly back-and-forth with great force, like the cracking of a whip. The injury often occurs when a person is seated in an unmoving car that is struck from behind by another car. This is commonly referred to as a rear-end collision.
How does a rear-end collision cause whiplash? Sophisticated tests with high-speed cameras and crash test dummies have revealed what happens. The impact causes the head and neck to be suddenly forced backward while the torso is pushed forward. After a few seconds, the unrestrained head and neck recover and are thrown forcefully forward.2 These extreme movements of the neck are called hyperextension and hyperflexion. They push the neck into an abnormal position, beyond its normal range of motion. The extreme movements damage the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, and nerves) of the neck, leading to whiplash symptoms.
The majority of whiplash injuries occur after a rear-end collision. This type of car accident can cause more damage to the cervical spine (neck) than frontal or side collisions.1 It is worth noting that even low-speed accidents can cause severe whiplash.3 You can reduce the risk of a whiplash injury by making sure that your headrest is well-positioned, so it supports the head and neck during a crash. Whiplash injuries tend to be more severe when the headrest is more than 2 inches behind the head.1
Whiplash injuries can occur as a result of
- Physical abuse, such as a blow to the head or being shaken violently by the shoulders.
- High-speed collisions between players during contact sports like football and rugby.
- Amusement park rides, especially roller coasters.
- Thrill-inducing activities like bungee jumping and water surfing.
- Falls, including falling off a bicycle or horse-riding accidents.
You can protect yourself against whiplash injuries by ensuring that the head restraint in your car has a good safety rating and is well-fitted. The top of the headrest should be level with the top of your head and no more than 5 cm (2 inches) from the back of your head.4 Always wear safety restraints during amusement park rides. Follow instructions while participating in thrill activities.
Common whiplash symptoms1,5
- Neck pain (the pain is often worse with movement)
- Neck stiffness
- Limited neck range of movement (inability to turn the head in all directions)
- Shoulder pain and stiffness
- Arm pain, arm weakness, numbness and tingling
- Upper back pain
- Headache (often at the base of the skull)
- Jaw pain
- Tinnitus (ringing sounds in the ears)
- Visual disturbances (blurred vision, difficulty focusing on objects)
You will not always notice the symptoms of whiplash immediately after an accident. The adrenaline rush following an incident can sometimes delay symptoms.6 In most people, the symptoms appear within 24 hours of the accident. Sometimes they may develop a few days later.7
Most people who are treated for whiplash get better and do not have any lasting effects from the injury. But, in some individuals, the pain and other symptoms last for months, sometimes even years after the injury. Lasting effects are more likely to occur if the symptoms start quickly after the injury and are severe. Complications are also more likely following a high-speed injury.
Interestingly, whiplash injuries are five times more common in women than in men.1 Older individuals are also at greater risk. People who have had whiplash before (or have pre-existing neck pain) are at a higher risk of chronic (ongoing) neck pain from whiplash.5
The physical symptoms of whiplash require immediate treatment. Without treatment, whiplash can lead to psychological complications, such as depression, anxiety, anger, and frustration. The stresses of the condition may cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia (trouble sleeping), and memory problems. These psychological symptoms are collectively called whiplash associated disorder.1 To prevent it from occurring, it’s important that you start treatment for whiplash as soon as possible. This can prevent the condition from becoming severe and longstanding.
Whiplash injuries are usually diagnosed based on the patient’s history and physical examination. The doctor will ask you questions about the event that caused your symptoms. This will help to assess whether the accident could have jerked the neck in a manner that would cause whiplash.
The diagnosis is made based on the severity and frequency of symptoms and their effect on everyday life. For example, someone with whiplash may find it difficult to perform personal grooming activities like brushing the hair. It may be painful to lift and care for a young child. Household chores and daily activities may become limited or challenging.
Imaging studies like X-ray, CT, and MRI scans don’t always reveal a whiplash injury.5 Doctors sometimes order these tests to rule out more serious injuries, such as fractures, dislocations, and bone damage which could be causing the neck pain or making it worse. In most people with suspected whiplash, however, imaging studies are normal. This is because the structural damage is often too small to see on the images even though the patient has symptoms. Therefore, history and symptoms are the main way to tell if someone has whiplash.1,4
If you were involved in a car crash, you may have been evaluated at the scene of the accident. But remember, the symptoms of whiplash may not appear immediately. The adrenaline rush caused by the accident can delay symptoms.If you have neck pain and other symptoms of whiplash, it is a good idea to see a doctor to rule out more serious injuries.
You should see a healthcare provider if your pain does not get better with off-the-shelf pain relievers.1, You should also seek urgent medical attention if your symptoms spread to the shoulders or arms or you experience numbness and tingling on one or both sides. Other worrisome symptoms include weakness in the arms and a sudden electric-shock sensation in the neck, back, or arms.78 These can be symptoms of nerve damage and require medical attention.
Rest: A day or two of rest following a whiplash injury is a good idea. However, staying immobile for too long) can delay your recovery.1 Wearing a neck collar, for example, has been shown to slow the healing process. Doctors advise early treatment with range of motion exercises and stretches. You should also stay active with everyday activities. This may hurt a little but will eventually speed up your recovery from whiplash.8
Medications: Over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can often help you control the pain associated with mild to moderate whiplash injuries. Prescription medications may be necessary for more severe pain.5
Heat or Cold: You can control the symptoms by applying either cold or heat to the neck for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours.
The key to whiplash treatment is exercise. You can do a series of stretches and range of motion exercises at home to help with whiplash pain. These exercises will speed up your return to normal activities. For best results, apply moist heat before you exercise (you can do this by taking a warm shower).5 Here are some examples of stretches that can help
Forward neck stretch
Sideways neck stretch
Head rotation with resistance
Whiplash recovery time can vary and depends on the severity of the injury. Also, everyone’s body is different and it’s difficult to predict how soon the symptoms will improve. In general, whiplash usually gets better within 2-3 months.8 If your neck pain has lasted for 6 months or more, the whiplash is considered a chronic (longstanding) injury.3 Between 12 to 50 percent of people have some remaining neck pain one year after the whiplash.14 You can speed up recovery by starting an exercise regimen soon after the injury.
What is the fastest way to treat whiplash?
The quickest way to recover from whiplash is to stay active and begin an exercise regimen after the accident. It makes sense to take things easy for the first few days after a whiplash injury. But, after an initial period of rest, doctors recommend you start stretching and strengthening the neck muscles to treat whiplash.
How long does whiplash take to heal?
The time it takes for whiplash symptoms to get better varies from person to person. The symptoms may last only a few days, If the injury to the soft tissues of the neck is minor. If the injury is severe, the whiplash symptoms may be present for many months. In the majority of people, the injury heals within 6-12 weeks.8
Be aware that shock and adrenaline can mask your symptoms immediately after the injury. That’s why you should be attentive to whiplash symptoms in the days and weeks following an accident. If you are experiencing pain or other symptoms, you should start treatment as soon as possible. This will help prevent long-term neck pain. If you do not start exercising, the pain and discomfort of whiplash can last for months, even years. Untreated whiplash can also lead to other more serious symptoms, such as vertigo (dizziness), headaches, misalignment of the spine, and degeneration of the spinal discs.15
Physical activity will be an important part of your recovery,if you have neck pain or other symptoms from a whiplash injury. Neck stretches and strengthening exercises may be slightly painful to start with, but will ultimately help control your pain. Also, people who have suffered whiplash once are more likely to suffer neck injuries in the future.3 Building up neck muscle strength is important to protect yourself against neck pain returning in the future.13
The Injurymap app has a variety of stretches and strengthening exercises for the neck. You can speed up your recovery from whiplash injury by doing these exercises regularly. Exercising will also help you prevent future neck problems. Injurymap’s exercises have been developed by experts. The app demonstrates the correct postures and techniques, making it easy for you to follow along at home. Take advantage of the 14-day free trial of the IM app to see how it can benefit you.
Whiplash is often perceived as a minor injury, nothing more than a twinge in the neck after a fender-bender. But, without the proper treatment, it can turn into something far more serious with long-term health effects. Don’t wait until your whiplash becomes a debilitating, longstanding condition. Start with an exercise program soon after a whiplash injury to prevent ongoing pain and complications down the road.
About the author
Pierre Schydlowsky is a specialist MD and Ph.D. of rheumatology with a diploma in sports medicine. He has published multiple research papers on shoulder and ski injuries and is teaching various advanced courses in sports medicine at Danish Universities.