A whiplash injury can occur if the head is suddenly jerked beyond its normal range of motion (either forward and backward or side to side), causing strain or damage to soft tissues in the neck. And whiplash injuries are fairly common, affecting approximately 3 million Americans each year.
(There is a similar condition known as ‘whiplash of the lower back’ that is less common but shares similar causes and symptoms as whiplash of the neck: pain and stiffness of the lower back with possible pain radiating down the legs. Because it is less common, whiplash of the lower back is diagnosed less often and most likely under-reported.)
While most minor whiplash injuries will resolve on their own, in severe cases, the symptoms can be extremely painful and long-lasting.
What are the most common causes of whiplash injuries?
What are the symptoms?
- Neck pain and stiffness. (This is the most common symptom.)
- Limited range of neck and head motion without feeling discomfort.
- Headaches, usually radiating from the base of the skull to the forehead.
- Shoulder and/or upper back pain.
- Tingling or numbness in the arms and hands.
- Fatigue and/or difficulty sleeping.
- Blurred vision.
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering things.
Symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the event and a person’s physical condition. And symptoms do not always show up immediately. In some cases, they may not begin until hours or even weeks after the trauma or accident, causing the victim to underestimate the severity of the damage.
How is whiplash diagnosed?
If a person is experiencing symptoms and believes they may have suffered a whiplash injury, they should see their healthcare provider. Your doctor may consider any past neck or spine injuries and evaluate your neck, arms, and hands for tenderness, stiffness, and/or range of motion. In some cases, imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or even EMG (electromyography) tests may be ordered.
What are common treatments for whiplash injuries?
Minor whiplash injuries can often be healed through self-care: initial rest (to reduce pain and inflammation), followed by a gradual return to normal activities. If needed, OTC pain medications may be used, and gentle neck stretching and strengthening exercises may be advised.
For severe whiplash injuries, stronger pain medications and relaxants may be prescribed. A cervical collar may be ordered to limit neck movement during the initial period, and chiropractic of physical therapy sessions and ultrasound or electical stimulation may be recommended.
Whiplash prevention tips
When driving: Make sure your headrest is adjusted to properly support your neck, if needed. (In most cases, it should be level with the top of your head.) Always wear your seat belt, drive cautiously (stay focused and avoid distractions), and minimize sudden braking.
When participating in sports: Wear proper gear, learn and follow proper techniques, and don’t take silly risks.
In everyday life: Practice good posture to reduce the strain on your neck and back, engage in exercises to strengthen your neck and upper body, and–if you have a job that requires a lot of sitting or repetitive motions–change positions occasionally and take regular breaks to stretch.