Injuries to the neck caused by a rapid, forcible back-and-forth movement are called whiplash. Many people will recover from whiplash without medical intervention; however, complete recovery may take a few months.
In some cases, it is possible for chronic pain to continue several months, or even years, after the injury.
At Novus Spine & Pain Center in Lakeland, Florida, we specialize in treating whiplash pain, using cutting edge therapies to help patients live pain-free.
What is Whiplash?
Whiplash pain is a term used to describe any soft tissue injury when the neck moves in an abnormal way. 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.
What causes Whiplash?
We most often associate whiplash as a common injury from a motor vehicle accident; however, it can also occur following any activity that causes forceful movement of the neck. This can be from falls, sports-related injuries, 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 a pain that radiates into the shoulders and arms.
The most common whiplash symptoms that often develop within 24 hours of the initial injury include:
- Neck pain and stiffness.
- Worsening of pain with neck movement.
- Loss of range of motion in the neck.
- 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:
- Blurred vision.
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
- Sleep disturbances.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Memory problems.
How is Whiplash Diagnosed?
A careful examination of a patient includes a complete medical history and physical exam. The physical exam will include assessing the range of motion of the neck and shoulders, in addition to the amount of pain caused by motion.
In addition to a review of your medical history and physical examination, an imaging test is usually done 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. A series of X-ray images processed with computer technology to create cross-sectional images of the bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues.
- 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?
Common treatment following a whiplash injury includes anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen, naproxen), muscle relaxers (cyclobenzaprine), ice, heat, and rest. Chiropractic therapies, decompression, and massage therapy can also be very useful in acute cases.
The good news is that with time, whiplash should heal on its own. During the healing process the pain can be lessened by:
- Rest. During the first 24 hours, get plenty of rest. But, 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.
- Interventional procedures. Selective nerve root blocks (SNRB), facet joint injections, trigger point injections, and epidural steroid injections are common interventional procedures to reduce pain. In some cases, we can do a nerve block to help accelerate relief. And if treatment is obtained soon after injury, we can usually prevent the headaches and neck pain from becoming chronic.
- 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 range of motion to the neck.
- Physical Therapy. A physical therapist may be used to help strengthen muscles and 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.
Neck Strain and Whiplash (WebMD)
Whiplash (Mayo Clinic)
Whiplash Injury Johns Hopkins
Whiplash (eMedicine Health)