Whiplash is a term which describes pain in the cervical region after the specific mechanism of hyperflexion and hyperextension. This commonly occurs during motor vehicle accidents.
The neck (cervical spine) is composed of vertebrae which begin in the upper torso and end at the base of the skull. The bony vertebrae along with the ligaments (like thick rubber bands) provide stability to the spine. The muscles allow for support and motion. The neck has a significant amount of motion and supports the weight of the head. However, because it is less protected and more mobile than the rest of the spine, the neck can be vulnerable to motion related disorders producing pain and restricted motion. For most people, the neck pain is a temporary condition that disappears with time.
Signs and symptoms
People who experience whiplash may develop one or more of the following symptoms, usually within the first two days after the accident:
Diagnosis and Treatment
During the physical exam, your doctor will ask you how the injury occurred, measure range of motion and check for any point tenderness. Your orthopaedist may request X-ray studies to look closely at the bones in your neck. This evaluation helps eliminate or identify other sources of neck pain, such as spinal fractures, dislocations, arthritis and other serious conditions.
All sprains or strains, no matter where they are located in the body, receive basically the same type of treatment. Usually, neck sprains, like other sprains, will gradually heal, given time and appropriate treatment. You may have to wear a soft cervical collar to help support the head and relieve pressure on the neck so the ligaments have time to heal.
Analgesics can help reduce the pain and any swelling. Muscle relaxants can help ease spasms. You can apply an ice pack for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, several times a day for the first two or three days after the injury. This will help reduce inflammation and discomfort. Although heat, particularly moist heat, can help loosen cramped muscles, it should not be applied too quickly.
Rarely does the treatment of whiplash require surgery. Because the term whiplash simply describes a mechanism of injury, all types of injury due to whiplash are included in a classification of "whiplash associated disorders" (WAD's). At their most severe, although rare, WAD's may involve broken bones or nerve damage and these may require some form of surgery.
Other treatment options include:
Generally, prognosis for individuals with whiplash is good. The neck and head pain clears within a few days or weeks. Most patients recover within 3 months after the injury, however, some may continue to have residual neck pain and headaches.
What is whiplash?
Whiplash and other medical conditions related to whiplash are types of neck injuries caused by sudden changes in the position of the neck. The most common way they happen is through car accidents where the car is hit from behind. The most common symptom reported by persons who have whiplash is pain due to mild muscle strain or minor injury to other non-bone tissue. Other injuries include injury to the nerves, discs and in the most severe cases injury to ligaments in the neck and even a broken bone in the neck. Minor whiplash injuries can result in pain and decreased movement in the head and neck. These symptoms may last for weeks or months, but sometimes they last longer and may include headaches, dizziness and tingling in the arms. Exactly what happens physically to produce whiplash symptoms is unknown. Some scientists believe that the cause of long-term whiplash symptoms is due to damage of nerves and that the cause of short-term pain may be minor injury to the muscles.
Sitting for long periods of time combined with a lack of exercise can lead to symptoms similar to whiplash. Sports activities resulting in being hit from behind can cause similar injury as whiplash from car accidents. Other medical conditions such as arthritis can also cause neck and shoulder aches. Your doctor is trained to find them. Living with a lot of tension and stress can also cause neck pain. It’s important to keep your neck healthy, especially if you’ve already suffered whiplash injury. The most important thing to do is to prevent whiplash by properly positioning the head restraint of your seat in your car.
That depends. Every person is different and aches and pains are part of your body’s response to trauma and stress. Healing takes time. Research suggests that people with more symptoms from the initial injury may take longer to heal. Most people are back to their normal activities, including work, even though their symptoms may take weeks, months or longer to get much better. For those who need time away from work, most will return to their usual activities within weeks. Only 3-5% of people with whiplash injuries are still on disability after one year.
Most whiplash injuries respond to a simple approach:
Here are some recommendations about other therapies:
Most physical pain and suffering have a psychological component, especially when pain continues and leads to fear, anxiety and depression. That is normal. However, focusing too much on your suffering, fears and anxieties can make you feel worse. If you find yourself dwelling on pain, reassure yourself and seek help from your doctor.
Studies show that young women who are not very muscular are more prone to whiplash.
Yes. The proper use of well-engineered head restraints dramatically reduces serious neck injuries from automobile accidents. Studies show that vehicles with well designed head restraints can reduce injuries in rear-impact crashes by 24% to 44%. Drivers can protect themselves from whiplash by buying safer vehicles. However, having a car with well-engineered head restraints isn’t enough.To reduce your chance of whiplash, those restraints have to be positioned correctly.
How do I know if my head restraint is positioned correctly?
Ask yourself the following two questions:
Many motorists refer to a head restraint as a headrest. But head restraints are not comfort features. They are essential safety features like lap/shoulder belts. In a rear-end crash, effective, well-designed head restraints help move your head forward along with your body, thereby decreasing your chances of getting a whiplash injury.
At impact, the vehicle moves forward causing the seat to push against your back (1). Your body is cushioned by the seat while your head and neck continue to move back (2). If your head is unsupported due to an improperly positioned head restraint (top sequence), it continues to move backwards over the head restraint (3). Properly adjusted head restraints (bottom sequence) keep your head and body positioned in line with each other throughout the collision, thereby protecting your neck (4).
What types of head restraints are available?
Yes. Head restraints have improved so that a newer vehicles are likely to have better head restraints than older ones. In 1995 only 3% of measured head restraints received good geometric ratings from the Institute, compared with 51% in 2005. The number of poor restraints decreased from 82% in 1995 to only 6% in 2005.