The guide to whiplash

Whiplash Accident Injury Guide

Most people have heard the term “whiplash” used in reference to injury from a car accident, but they may not know what it means.  This guide briefly explains what whiplash is, how you get it, symptoms, and the most common treatment.

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash occurs when a person’s head is suddenly forced backward and then forward, but it also occurs when the head goes forward and then back.  The rapid motion puts the neck and cervical spine through extreme stresses.

What causes Whiplash?

Whiplash commonly occurs following a rear-end car accident.  Other potential causes include sports injury (e.g., football, skiing, horseback riding), assault, bungee jumping, rollercoaster, and other high-impact activities.  Essentially, whiplash can occur from any activity that features extreme acceleration-deceleration forces on the head and neck.  As a result, the muscles and ligaments of the neck extend beyond their normal range of motion stretching, and potentially tearing, soft tissue.

We mostly see whiplash injuries from car accidents where our client is stopped when they are hit from behind.  The impact causes the car seat to push against the client’s back.  This causes a jolt to the spine and accelerates the body forward; however, the head is not usually in contact with the seat, so its movement lags.  As a result, the cervical spine’s natural C-shape temporarily becomes an unnatural S-shape.  These abnormal compression and shearing forces can potentially damage intervertebral discs, facet joints, and other neck structures.  The head will usually slam backward into the accelerating seat causing the soft tissues in the front of the neck to be injured as they rapidly extend.  The head bounces off the seat and accelerates forward.  The seatbelt magnifies this movement by restraining the body, allowing the head to whip forward and rapidly flex the neck.  Soft tissues in the back of the neck are injured as they rapidly flex.

Minor Impact Whiplash Injury

Generally, the severity of the car crash usually correlates to the severity of the whiplash injury.  However, even “minor” impacts that show almost no visible car damage can cause whiplash—this is usually because the vehicle is sturdy enough to minimize crush damage.  Still, as a result, the crash forces that are not absorbed are transferred through the seat and into the passengers.  Whiplash injuries do occur in crashes with speeds less than 10 miles per hour.

What are the symptoms of Whiplash?

The most common symptom of whiplash is neck pain and stiffness, which causes reduced range of motion in the head-neck-shoulder regions.  Other common symptoms include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness,
  • Loss of range of motion in the neck and shoulders,
  • Headaches, most often starting at the base of the skull,
  • Tenderness or pain in the shoulder, upper back, or arms,
  • Low back pain,
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or hands,
  • Jaw pain or stiffness,
  • Fatigue, and
  • Dizziness.

Some people may experience:

  • Blurred vision,
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears),
  • Sleep disturbances,
  • Irritability,
  • Difficulty concentrating,
  • Memory problems, and
  • Depression.

These symptoms, in turn, can cause increased social isolation.

Significantly, whiplash symptoms are often delayed, and you may not notice anything until hours or even days later.  This delay may occur because of adrenaline or other factors that cannot be predicted (i.e., different people have different pain thresholds, inflammation occurs at different rates, other biological factors).

What should I do if I suspect I have a Whiplash injury?

Anyone in a car crash, even if they only have minor symptoms at first, is advised to see a doctor.  See your primary care doctor or an urgent care clinic if you’ve been in a car accident and have any whiplash symptoms.  Immediately go to the emergency room if the pain is severe.  A prompt, accurate diagnosis is critical to rule out broken bones or other serious injuries.  You should expect your doctor to conduct a physical exam and order imaging studies (e.g., X-ray, MRI, or CT scan).  Once more serious injuries are ruled out, or resolved, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan for whiplash.

When will my Whiplash go away?

Most people who suffer from whiplash will completely recover within 3 months, with minimal to no lasting effects.  However, there are many people who develop chronic pain or other symptoms that may linger for months to years.  No one can predict who will completely recover and who will develop long-term problems, but you may be more likely to develop chronic pain if your first symptoms were intense, started rapidly, and included:

  • Severe neck pain,
  • More-limited range of motion, and
  • Pain that spread to the arms

Additionally, factors that increase the risk for a worse outcome include:

  • Having had a prior whiplash injury,
  • Older age,
  • Existing low back or neck pain,
  • a high-speed injury,
  • Female gender, and
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whiplash injuries can also accompany concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI).  Concussions and mTBIs do not go away quickly or easily.  Even if the symptoms do not seem severe, these are potentially life-altering injuries, so you should see a doctor as soon as possible—without delay.