Summary of Whiplash Injury
Whiplash is a common cause of neck pain, caused when the neck is jolted suddenly and violently forwards, backwards or sideways – for example during a motor vehicle accident (MVA). The pain comes from the damage caused to the soft tissue surrounding the neck, with any further symptoms experienced known as Whiplash Associated Disorders – which we will discuss shortly. Positive steps can be taken to tackle the pain of whiplash early, including exercises which focus on neck movement; slowly increasing the range of movement to decrease spasming in the muscles.
Whiplash is the term we use to describe the injury sustained when the neck is suddenly and forcibly jolted forwards, backwards or sideways. Patients with whiplash mainly suffer from neck pain, although the damage is not always limited to the neck and may travel to one or both arms, between the shoulder blades, across the face or down to the lower back. The pain is generally caused by the damage to soft tissues around the neck, made up of ligaments, tendons and muscles, which become overstretched by the sudden movement. Other symptoms besides pain may be experienced, and these are termed Whiplash Associated Disorders (WAD).
The overstretching of those tender neck tissues, described earlier, causes a pain that leaves the patient unable or unwilling to move their neck. This in turn causes the joints of the neck to stiffen up, ultimately making recovery much more difficult. Headaches, shoulder pain or pain in the arms could be other symptoms of whiplash. Whiplash Associated Disorders are the issues resulting from whiplash that aren’t related to pain. Some examples may be a tingling sensation in the arms, dizziness, ringing in the ears, changes in vision, fatigue, poor concentration and memory, and difficulty sleeping. Any of the above symptoms may be experienced as a result of whiplash, but will not necessarily set in immediately after the incident. It may take up to 12 hours for the symptoms of whiplash to become apparent, and the pain or stiffness experienced is often worse on the day after the injury; continuing to develop and worsen over the course of the next few days.
The recovery time for whiplash varies for each individual. The severity of the injury will influence your recovery time, as will previous injuries, how quickly you sought help after the injury and how well your body responds to the treatment. In most cases, the symptoms should ease off within a few days, and in about 60% of cases we see, symptoms are almost completely gone within one to four weeks.
Whiplash is often caused by a sudden movement of the neck, most commonly reported after a motor accident. The force of impact makes the neck jolt beyond its normal range of movement, which damages the ligaments, tendons and muscles surrounding the neck by overstretching them. Additional symptoms experienced in the head or arms can be caused by damage or irritation to the nerve roots around the neck. Other causes of whiplash may include a blow to the head, a sports injury, or a violent slip or fall.
Whiplash treatment revolves primarily around dealing with the pain, and increasing the range of movement in the neck to avoid further pain and complication. Patients are encouraged to move the neck gently in all directions as soon as possible after the injury, to avoid the neck becoming stiff. Mobilisations and manipulations may be used by a clinician, along with heat treatments and other pain-relieving techniques. If the pain becomes increasingly severe or if you continue to develop symptoms days after the injury, you should consult with your clinician immediately. Likewise, if you develop problems with walking around, passing urine, or experience dizzy spells when bending your neck, you should seek help.
To feel normal, our bodies need a full range of movement, and this includes your neck. The prescribed exercises are vital to recovering the full range of movement in your neck, to decrease the risk of your neck joints becoming stiff. The amount of improvement and the duration of the pain you experience will all depend on how well you perform the exercises as prescribed.