Whiplash

Topic Overview

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is pain and stiffness in the neck after an injury that has caused the neck to move suddenly or beyond its normal range.

It occurs when the head is suddenly forced backward or forward and is then snapped in the other direction. This kind of motion most often happens to people in a car that is hit from behind. Less commonly, it might happen in a fall, a sports injury, or if you are roughly shaken. The motion causes stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck, and it may damage the nerves. In rare cases, it may cause broken bones.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of whiplash are pain and stiffness in the neck and sometimes in the muscles in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms. You also may have a headache, feel dizzy, and have pain in your back.

You may not have any symptoms until the day after your injury. Or your symptoms may go away but then return a few days later.

You may have a more serious injury if you have:

  • Severe pain in your neck.
  • Pain down one or both arms.
  • Pain that comes back after being gone for a few days.
  • Numbness or tingling in your hands, arms, chest, or legs.
  • Weakness in your arms, hands, or legs.
  • Inability to move your head.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your neck injury and past health, and he or she will carefully examine your head and neck. You may need X-rays to make sure there are no broken bones in your neck. You may also need an imaging test such as an MRI or CT scan to look for other injuries.

How is it treated?

Most whiplash improves with home treatment. Things you can do include:

  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine such as acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen. Your doctor may prescribe pain medicines and muscle relaxers to help with continuing or severe pain.
  • Try using a heating pad on a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 or 3 hours. Try a warm shower in place of one session with the heating pad. You can also buy single-use heat wraps that last up to 8 hours. You can also try an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. There is not strong evidence that either heat or ice will help. But you can try them to see if they help.
  • Avoid activities such as lifting and sports that make pain and stiffness worse.
  • Place a special pillow or a tightly rolled-up towel under your neck while you sleep. Do not use your regular pillow at the same time.
  • You can try using a soft foam collar to support your neck for short periods of time. You can probably buy one at a drugstore. Do not wear the collar more than 2 or 3 days unless your doctor tells you to do so.
  • Talk with your doctor about whether physical therapy could help you.
  • Return to your normal daily activities as soon as possible.

It takes up to 3 months for the neck to heal, even though most pain may be gone in less time. More severe whiplash may take longer, but it usually improves within 6 to 12 months.

After your neck pain is gone, do exercises to stretch your neck and back and make them stronger. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell you which exercises are best.

How can you prevent whiplash?

To help prevent whiplash when you drive, always wear your seat belt and adjust your headrest to the proper height.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Cervical strain. In JF Sarwark, ed., Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, 4th ed., pp. 929–933. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  • Binder A (2008). Neck pain, search date May 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics
Last Revised November 19, 2012

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