Whiplash: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Whiplash refers to a series of neck injuries caused by or related to a sudden distortion of the neck.

Whiplash, or whiplash-associated disorder (WAD), is often the result of being struck from behind, for example, by a fast moving vehicle in an automobile accident.

When a blow is struck, the individual’s body is immediately pushed forward while the head remains behind for an instant. This forces the head to rock up and back, stretching and sometimes tearing some muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

The muscles automatically contract and bring the head forward, sometimes too far, and the head may rock forward violently, further stretching or tearing muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Fast facts on whiplash

Whiplash can be caused by a collision from any direction, not just behind.

It can also be caused in other ways, including abuse, horse riding, and contact sports.

Sometimes, the full effect of whiplash is not felt for 24 hours or more after the incident.

Symptoms can include lower back pain, dizziness, and muscle spasms.

Even a slow speed collision can cause whiplash.

How does it happen?

Whiplash anatomy diagram
Whiplash symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, and vision problems.

Most people associate whiplash with a vehicle being hit from behind by another vehicle – the driver in front gets whiplash. However, the impact can come from any direction, and the head may move backward or sideways, not only forward.

Whiplash injury may also be sustained in other ways, including:

falling off a bicycle

horse riding accident

physical abuse – including shaking a baby

amusement park rides

contact sports

blows to the head with a heavy object

Put simply, the ligaments and tendons in the neck are sprained during a whiplash injury because they have been overstretched. Even though the neck has not been broken, it may sometimes take several months for everything to heal.

Women are more susceptible to whiplash injuries than men; experts believe it is because women’s neck muscles are usually not as strong as men’s.

How does it feel?

A whiplash injury typically takes 12-24 hours to develop. At the time of the incident, any swelling or bruising to the neck muscles will not be apparent straight away. In most cases, the discomfort, pain, and stiffness is much worse on the following day, and may continue to worsen as each day goes by.

A person with whiplash may experience:

a loss (or reduction) of movement in the neck

headaches

neck pain

neck stiffness

the back of the neck feels tender

These whiplash signs and symptoms are also possible:

lower back pain

pain in the arms and hands

numbness or pins and needles in the arms and hands

muscle spasms

dizziness

fatigue

swallowing difficulties

vision problems (vision may be blurred)

a feeling that you are moving or spinning (vertigo)

ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

sleep disturbances

These less common signs and symptoms are also possible:

irritability

memory loss

poor concentration

Headaches, dizziness, problems swallowing, and vision problems should not last long. If they do, tell your doctor.

Whiplash X-ray
A range of imaging techniques might be used to diagnose whiplash.

The doctor will examine the patient and ask them about any recent accidents, sporting events, falls, or blows to the head.

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