Whiplash is a neck injury that can occur during rear-end automobile collisions, when your head suddenly moves backward and then forward — similar to the motion of someone cracking a whip. These extreme motions push your neck muscles and ligaments beyond their normal range of motion.
Whiplash injuries can be mild or severe. Treatment typically begins with over-the-counter pain relievers and ice applied to the painful neck muscles. If pain persists, prescription medications and physical therapy may be helpful.
Most people recover from whiplash in just a few weeks, but some people may develop chronic pain after a whiplash injury.
Most whiplash symptoms develop within 24 hours of the injury and may include:
Some people also experience:
When to see a doctor
Whiplash typically occurs when a person's head is thrown backward and then forward, straining the neck's muscles and ligaments. This type of injury may result from:
Women are more likely to experience whiplash than are men, perhaps because their necks aren't usually as strong as those of men.
Most people who experience whiplash will recover in the first two to three months. Fewer people may continue to have pain for several months — possibly up to two years — after the injury occurred. In some people, this chronic pain can be traced to damage in the joints, disks and ligaments of the neck. But in many cases, no abnormality can be found to explain this persistent neck pain.
Preparing for your appointment
Because whiplash often occurs during car accidents, it's common to seek immediate treatment at a hospital's emergency department or an urgent care clinic.
What you can do
For whiplash, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
The doctor may also perform a neurological exam to check for:
In addition, your doctor may ask you a number of questions, such as:
Tests and diagnosis
A variety of imaging tests may help rule out other causes of neck pain.
Treatments and drugs
As pain permits, exercises to stretch and strengthen neck muscles can help to minimize symptoms and help protect your neck in the future.
If worn temporarily, cervical collars should be worn for no longer than three hours at a time and for only the first few days after the injury. If you're continually being awakened at night by whiplash pain, especially early on after the injury, wearing a cervical collar may help you sleep.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), often can control mild to moderate whiplash pain.
Many people with whiplash pain find it helpful to use ice or heat on their necks and upper backs. In general, ice should be used early in the recovery period, to reduce inflammation, while heat is especially helpful to relax muscles before range-of-motion exercises.
Once your pain is under control, your doctor will likely want you to regularly perform gentle stretching exercises to help restore your neck's range of motion. These usually involve rotating your head from side to side, and bending your neck forward, backward and to the sides.
Many nontraditional therapies have been employed to treat whiplash pain, including:
Last Updated: 2012-02-15
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