Injuries to the neck caused by a rapid, forcible back-and-forth movement are called whiplash. Many people recover from whiplash without medical intervention; however, complete recovery may take a few months. In some cases, chronic pain can continue for several months, or even years, after the injury.
Whiplash pain is a term we use to describe any soft tissue injury when the neck moves abnormally. In this type of injury, the neck is forced to extremes of range of motion, which can cause significant injury to muscles, ligaments, discs, tendons, and facet joints. We generally think of whiplash as the neck bending forcibly forward and then backward; however, “whiplash-associated disorders” can refer to sudden movement and changes in any direction.
What Causes Whiplash?
We often associate whiplash as a common injury from a motor vehicle accident. However, it can also occur following any activity that causes a forceful neck movement. It could be the result of a sports injury, especially during contact sports, a fall, and even some amusement park rides. Whiplash can lead to pain for many months or even years following the original injury.
What Are the Symptoms of Whiplash?
The most common symptoms associated with whiplash are neck pain, difficulty turning the head from side to side, and moving the head up and down. However, whiplash can also cause swelling in the back of the neck and muscle spasms. Sometimes, symptoms include headaches and pain that radiates into the shoulders and arms.
The most common whiplash symptoms that often develop within 24 hours of the initial injury include:
Headaches, most often starting at the base of the skull.
Tenderness or pain in shoulders, upper back, or arms.
Tingling or numbness in the arms.
Some people also experience these symptoms following a whiplash injury:
Ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
Predicting how long it will take to recover from whiplash is challenging. In general, a person is more likely to have chronic pain if the initial symptoms are intense, started rapidly, and include:
Severe neck pain.
More limited range of motion.
Pain that spread to the arms.
Whiplash patients with any of the following risk factors generally have a worse outcome:
Having suffered whiplash previously.
Existing low back or neck pain.
The whiplash was the result of a high-speed injury.
How is Whiplash Diagnosed?
A careful examination of a patient includes a complete medical history and physical exam. The physical exam will assess the range of motion of the neck and shoulders and the amount of pain caused by movement.
In addition to a review of your medical history and physical examination, an imaging test is usually performed to see if other conditions could be causing or contributing to the pain. The imaging test can include:
X-rays. Used to identify any fractures, dislocations, or other signs of serious injury.
Computed tomography (CT) scan. Computer technology creates cross-sectional views of the bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues from a series of X-ray images.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Technology that uses radio waves and a magnetic field to produce detailed 3-D images of organs and soft tissue structures within the body.
How is Whiplash Treated?
Following a whiplash injury, typical treatment includes anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen, naproxen), muscle relaxers (cyclobenzaprine), ice, heat, and rest. Chiropractic therapies, decompression, and massage therapy can also be helpful in acute cases.
The good news is that whiplash generally heals on its own with time. During the healing process, the pain can be lessened by:
Rest. During the first 24 hours, get plenty of rest. However, be aware that prolonged bed rest can delay recovery.
Ice. Apply ice as soon as possible after the injury to help reduce pain and swelling. Apply for 15 minutes every 3-4 hours for 2-3 days. Wrap the ice in a thin towel or cloth to prevent injury to the skin.
Moist heat. Apply heat only after the first 2-3 days of icing. Heat should be used on the neck only after the initial swelling has gone down. One way to do this is to apply warm, wet towels or take a warm bath.
Over-the-counter pain medications. Generally, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), can help reduce pain and swelling.
Prescription medications. If over-the-counter medications do not work, prescription medications and muscle relaxants may be necessary. These might be in the form of a pill or an injection.
Cervical collar. A cervical collar can add support and hold the head still. However, collars are not recommended for long-term use because they can cause a weakening of the neck muscles.
Exercise. A series of stretching and movement exercises can help restore the range of motion to the neck.
Physical therapy. A physical therapist may be used to help strengthen muscles, restore normal movement, and improve posture.
Other treatments. Ultrasound and massage may also help.
Recovery time depends on the seriousness of the whiplash injury. Most times, minor whiplash injuries are resolved in a few days. But more severe injuries take longer to heal. Whatever the case, do not rush back to your normal activity level. People who play contact sports should be especially careful their injury has fully healed before beginning full activities again.
Novus Spine & Pain Center
Novus Spine & Pain Center is in Lakeland, Florida, and specializes in treating pain resulting from whiplash. By using a comprehensive approach and cutting edge therapies, we work together with patients to restore function and regain an active lifestyle, while minimizing the need for opiates.