Whiplash

Definition

Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of the neck from a sudden jerking or "whipping" of the head. This type of motion strains the muscles and ligaments of the neck beyond their normal range of motion.

See also: Neck pain

Considerations

When a vehicle stops suddenly in a crash or is hit from behind, the seat belt will keep a person's body from being thrown forward. But the head may snap forward, then backward, causing a whiplash injury.

Causes

In addition to car accidents, whiplash can be caused by roller coasters and other amusement park rides, sports injuries, or being punched or shaken. (Whiplash is one of the hallmarks of shaken baby syndrome.)

Symptoms

You may feel pain and stiffness in your neck for the first few days after a whiplash injury. You may feel better early on, but the pain and stiffness may come back several days later. This symptom can last for months or years.

The discomfort you feel may involve surrounding muscle groups in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms.

First Aid

Steps to take care of your whiplash injury include:

You may want to reduce your activity only for the first couple of days. Then slowly resume your usual activities.

Do not perform activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your back or neck for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins. After 2 - 3 weeks, slowly begin exercising again. A physical therapist can help you decide when to begin stretching and strengthening exercises and how to do them.

Other steps that may help your neck pain improve are:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your doctor if:

Prevention

Headrests in your car can reduce the severity of neck pain from a car accident. Make sure that the headrest is positioned properly for your height.

If you do get whiplash, learn proper stretching exercises once your neck has healed. This reduces the chance that neck pain or stiffness will come back.

References

Hudgins TH, Shahban L, Alleva JT. Cervial sprain or strain. In: Frontera, WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD Jr, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 5.

Ronthal M. Arm and neck pain. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 32.

Verhagen AP, Scholten-Peeters GG, van Wingaarden S, de Bie R, Bierma-Zeinstra SMA. Conservative treatments for whiplash. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Apr 18;(2):CD003338.

Devereaux M. Neck Pain. Med Clin North Am. 2009;93:273-284.