What is whiplash?
Whiplash is an injury to the neck that comes in many forms, and is characterized by a collection of symptoms. The most serious form of whiplash compresses nerves in the neck and causes multiple sprains of the ligaments. Whether front-to-back or side-to-side, whiplash can affect muscles all the way into your back and arms.
How do you get it?
Most often the result of a car accident, whiplash is caused by an abrupt backward and/or forward jerking motion of the head. It is sometimes called “hyperextension injury” as the neck has made a whip-like motion, first bending toward and then away from the impact point. As the head moves rapidly, the neck muscles contract, and this momentum causes strain or sprain to the neck muscles and ligaments. The most serious form of whiplash compresses nerves in the neck and causes multiple sprains of the ligaments. Fortunately, serious injuries are in the minority, and whiplash tends to be more superficial damage to the muscles.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may be delayed for 24 hours or more, but you may initially experience whiplash as stiffness in the injured areas while developing one or more of the following symptoms within the first few days:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
- Low back pain
- Pain or numbness in the arm and/or hand
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering
- Irritability, sleep disturbances, fatigue
How is whiplash diagnosed?
In most cases, injuries can’t be seen on x-rays so specialized imaging tests such as CT scans or MRIs may be required to diagnose damage to soft tissues such as the discs, muscles or ligaments.
What to do about whiplash
Within the first 24 hours, icing and gentle, active movement is recommended while limiting physical activity for a few days, and getting plenty of rest. Gentle movement will help circulate blood, oxygen, and nutrients through the healing tissues and speed the healing process. The neck is a very delicate part of the body, so it’s important to proceed with caution. While no single treatment has proven effective for whiplash, pain relief medications (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) along with gentle exercise, bodywork, physical therapy, and massage are helpful for many patients.