Whiplash is a type of neck injury pattern that occurs during high-impact collisions, most commonly as a result of a car accident. It is a common cause of neck pain after automobile accidents. Whiplash occurs most often when a car is hit from the rear. Whiplash also sometimes occurs as a result of a collision while playing sports or in some cases of physical violence or child abuse.
In whiplash, the head suddenly jerks backwards compared to the rest of the body, and then the head moves suddenly forward. When this motion occurs forcefully, different structures in the neck can be stretched beyond their capacity or torn, causing injury. Whiplash affects the cervical (neck) region of the spine, plus associated structures like ligaments, muscle tendons and nerves. Because of this, a severe whiplash injury may involve muscle strains, or pulled muscles, sprains, or torn ligaments, and pinched spinal nerves. All of these injuries can potentially cause neck pain.
Symptoms of whiplash may not appear for hours after the accident, but they usually appear within a day or so. The main symptoms are neck pain and neck stiffness, but headache, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, impaired short-term memory and blurred vision may also occur in some people with a whiplash injury. If a spinal nerve is affected, there may be pain, tingling, muscle weakness or numbness that spreads to the shoulders and radiates down the arms.
Whiplash after an accident is diagnosed using X-rays, CT scans or MRI scans. Mild cases of whiplash are usually treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are available over-the-counter or as a prescription medication, and using ice on the neck and shoulders to reduce swelling and pain. More severe cases of whiplash pain may need to be addressed by a doctor. A doctor may prescribe pain killers or muscle relaxants, or inject a muscle relaxant directly into a muscle that is painful due to spasm. People with whiplash may need to see a physical therapist for rehabilitation exercises. A physical therapist may also use therapies such as heat, ice or ultrasound to help with rehabilitation after a whiplash injury. A cervical collar or neck brace may be suggested in some cases. Doctors no longer recommend wearing these for long periods of time, because they can slow down the rehabilitation process, but they may be useful for short-term use during the first few days after sustaining a whiplash injury.