What is Whiplash?
Whiplash is a neck injury that is usually caused by a violent back-and-forth movement of the head, such as during a car accident. Ligaments connect the vertebrae (backbones) in the neck, also known as the cervical spine, to each other, whereas tendons connect muscles to vertebrae. Whiplash is damage to those tendons (a neck sprain) or ligaments (neck sprain), but not all neck sprains and neck strains are cases of whiplash.
Causes and Risk Factors
Whiplash is almost always caused by an acute traumatic event. Car accidents, especially when the patient is rear-ended, are the most common cause. Other causes include assault and physical abuse, particularly in children–whiplash is a common injury in shaken babies–and contact sports injuries such as football tackles.
Occasionally the injury develops into chronic whiplash, which can cause long-lasting neck pain and other symptoms. People at risk for chronic whiplash include those who:
- Have severe symptoms of whiplash from an acute injury
- Have had whiplash in the past
- Already have lower back or neck pain
- Are older in age
Symptoms of whiplash usually develop within 24 hours of a traumatic event, and can include:
- Pain in the back of the neck
- Stiffness and decreased range of motion in the neck
- Muscle spasms in the neck or shoulder
- Headache in the back of the head or base of the skull
- Pain that worsens with movement
- Tingling or numbness in the hand or arm
- Concussion signs such as fatigue, irritability or confusion
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Short-term memory loss
Doctors will usually begin diagnosing whiplash with a physical examination and medical history. During the exam, the doctor will be looking for signs and symptoms of whiplash. A medical history can reveal the accident that likely caused the injury.
Imaging tests may be ordered if the exam and history prove inconclusive. X-rays will not show ligament or tendon damage but they can be helpful in ruling out other sources of neck pain such as vertebral compression fractures. Soft tissue damage such as those from neck sprains or neck strains may be visible on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Whiplash is rarely treated with surgery. Instead, a variety of nonoperative management techniques can be attempted, depending on the severity of the patient’s symptoms.
Pain Management Techniques
Treatments to reduce pain can include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Prescription pain relievers
- Heat and ice
- Lidocaine (a numbing agent) injections
- Muscle relaxants
Exercise and Physical Therapy
The goals of exercise and physical therapy are to return strength and range of motion to the joints and muscles in and around the neck. Stretching and strengthening exercises can include:
- Rolling the neck clockwise and counterclockwise
- Nodding up and down
- Shaking the head “no”
- Rolling the shoulders forward and back
A surgeon may recommend the use of a foam collar after a whiplash injury. The goal of the collar is to support the head and keep the neck immobilized to allow healing to occur. The collar may have to be worn for a period of days to weeks.
If you have experienced a whiplash injury, request an appointment at Edison Spine Center. Our physicians have decades of experience treating these injuries, often as part of our automobile accident services.