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Did My Accident Cause Whiplash?
Did My Accident Cause Whiplash?

If you suffer from neck pain following a car accident, you may have whiplash.  This is a common consequence of rear-end collisions.  Damage to the neck can occur even if the vehicles are traveling at low speed.  Whiplash happens when the head is quickly thrown forward and then backward in a very forceful manner.  This whip-like motion overstretches the soft tissues in the neck and damages muscles, ligaments, and tendons.  Older people and those with arthritis in the spine may suffer a more serious whiplash than younger people.  In addition to accidents, a whiplash may be caused by a sports injury, physical abuse, or other trauma including falls.

A physician should be seen promptly if you suspect you may have whiplash.  Diagnostic tests such as x-rays will determine whether there are any fractures of the spine.  CAT scans and MRIs will assess damage to the soft tissues.  The doctor will also check range of motion in the neck and shoulders as well as reflexes and sensation in the arms.  Most patients will recover from whiplash within a few weeks, but some may develop chronic pain.

Symptoms of whiplash

Most people will notice symptoms of whiplash soon after the initial injury.  The most common symptoms include the following: 

  • Sharp pain and stiffness in the neck
  • Shoulder or upper back pain or spasms
  • Loss of range of motion in the neck
  • Headaches
  • Swelling
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing

Other symptoms of whiplash may include blurred vision, ringing in the ears, and difficulty sleeping.

Treatment options for whiplash

Soft tissue injuries take time to heal.  Some patients may be able to reduce the pain and treat the inflammation by taking over the counter non-steroidal pain medications like ibuprofen or naproxen.  People suffering from severe pain may need to take a stronger, prescription strength pain reliever.  Ice packs can help to reduce the inflammation and swelling.  Heat therapy can improve circulation and blood flow to the affected area, helping the muscles to relax.  This helps with pain management and increases flexibility.  Simple stretching exercises, like rotating the neck and tilting the head from side to side, may be helpful.

Senior man having physical therapy for neck injury from whiplash

Physical therapy can help the patient to recover faster from whiplash.  The therapist can recommend exercises for flexibility and strength that will be beneficial for the patient to do at home.  Physical therapy may also include the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, ultrasound, cervical traction, and dry needling.  Soft foam cervical collars were once commonly used with whiplash.  However, research now shows that long term use may actually interfere with recovery.  Some alternative treatments for whiplash include massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic adjustments.

Is surgery necessary for whiplash?

Surgery is usually not necessary when treating whiplash.  However, surgery may be indicated if the injury results in a narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck.  Surgery can relieve the pain caused by pressure on the spinal cord and nerves.  Surgical repair of damaged discs is also sometimes necessary.  The surgeon will generally wait several weeks to determine whether more conservative treatments are successful before recommending surgery.  

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