Health Library

Definition

Whiplash is a soft tissue neck injury that can include:

  • Spraining the neck ligaments
  • Straining the neck muscles
  • Injury to cervical discs
  • Possible nerve injury
Process Leading to Whiplash
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Causes

Whiplash can occur with any sudden, violent, backward jerk of the head or neck.

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase your chance of whiplash include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Sporting events that include full contact
  • Falls
  • Assaults

Symptoms

Symptoms often develop in the hours after the injury although they can develop in the days after the injury.

Symptoms may include:

  • Stiff neck
  • Neck pain
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Shoulder pain and stiffness
  • Decreased range of neck motion
  • Muscle spasms
  • Headache
  • Pain, numbness, or tingling extending down an arm
  • Unusual fatigue

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Most whiplash injuries do not show up on imaging tests. Your doctor may order some tests to make sure that no other injuries have occurred.

Your doctor may want to take images of the neck to look for further damage. Images may be taken with:

An electromyogram may also be done to test for nerve damage.

Treatment

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options may include:

  • Use an ice pack for the first few days, then switch to a heat pack. Apply for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Place a towel between the ice or heat pack and your skin.
  • Medications such as:
    • Over-the-counter pain relievers
    • Prescription pain relievers
    • Muscle relaxants
  • Moving as able—strict rest may slow recovery
  • Physical therapy and exercises
  • Joint manipulation of the spine done by a chiropractor or other trained provider

If you are diagnosed with whiplash, follow your doctor's instructions.

Prevention

There are no current guidelines for preventing whiplash. It often occurs due to an unexpected event.

Revision Information

  • FamilyDoctor.org - American Academy of Family Physicians

    http://familydoctor.org

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

    http://orthoinfo.org

  • Canadian Orthopaedic Association

    http://www.coa-aco.org

  • Healthy Canadians

    http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

  • Cervical sprain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated May 25, 2013. Accessed June 10, 2013.

  • Conlin A, Bhogal S, et al. Treatment of whiplash-associated disorders--part I: Non-invasive interventions. Pain Research & Management. 10(1):21-32, 2005.

  • Conlin A, Bhogal S, et al. Treatment of whiplash-associated disorders--part II: Medical and surgical interventions. Pain Research & Management. 10(1):33-40, 2005.

  • Curatolo M, Arendt-Nielsen L, et al. Evidence, mechanisms, and clinical implications of central hypersensitivity in chronic pain after whiplash injury. Clinical Journal of Pain. 20(6):469-76, 2004 Nov-Dec.

  • Neck sprain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00410. Updated August 2007. Accessed June 10, 2013.

  • NINDS whiplash information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/whiplash/whiplash.htm. Updated September 19, 2012. Accessed June 10, 2013.

  • Verhagen AP, Scholten-Peeters GG, et al. Conservative treatments for whiplash. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (2):CD003338, 2007.