What is whiplash?

A neck strain that occurs when your head is jerked forward and then backward. The sudden force stretches or tears the muscles and tendons in your neck. Most cases of whiplash are caused by car crashes.

Causes of whiplash

Whiplash is most commonly caused by a rear-end car collision.

Other causes of whiplash include:

  • Bungee jumping
  • Riding roller coasters
  • Football or other high-impact sports
  • High-impact activities where the head can be forced forward and then backward and the force is applied to the cervical spine
  • Child abuse where the child is repeatedly shaken

Risk factors for whiplash

You may be at higher risk for whiplash if you:

  • Drive aggressively
  • Participate in high-impact sports like football or soccer
  • Ride roller coasters at amusement parks

Symptoms of whiplash

Symptoms of whiplash are intense and include:

  • Pain in the neck when moving it side to side or backward and forward
  • Pain when looking over the shoulder
  • Headaches that spread to the forehead
  • Tightness in the neck and muscles that feel knotted
  • Decreased range of motion in the neck

Diagnosis of whiplash

Whiplash is diagnosed in a full medical exam with your doctor. In most cases, your provider will order an x-ray, MRI or CT scan to rule out other conditions that could contribute to the pain.

  • An x-ray can rule out fractures, arthritis or dislocation
  • A CT scan can determine the extent of the damage
  • A MRI can detect soft tissue injuries to the spinal cord, disks or ligaments

Treatments for whiplash

Whiplash should heal on its own within a few weeks. Initial treatments include:

  • Ice — icing the neck will help reduce pain and swelling; if possible, ice the neck for 15 minutes every 3 to 4 hours.
  • Brace — bracing the neck can help stabilize the muscles during early healing; however, do not use a brace long term as it can weaken the neck muscles.
  • Medication — anti-inflammatory medication can help relieve pain and swelling associated with whiplash.
  • Steroid injection — corticosteroid injection directly into the area that was impacted.
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation — physical therapy exercises can help improve muscle strength, posture and restore movement.
  • Collar — your physician may prescribe a collar to help the neck remain in place during healing; because wearing it too long can weaken the neck, it is typically for only a few hours each day.

Recovery from whiplash

Most cases of whiplash heal within one to two weeks with home therapies. If you have a moderate whiplash injury, it may take four to eight weeks to completely heal. In severe cases, where there is nerve damage or disc injury, surgical intervention may be required.

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