Whiplash is a soft tissue injury to the neck most often caused by motor vehicle accidents. While most patients recover within weeks or months, some accident victims suffer long-lasting effects that become chronic in nature. Severe whiplash injuries also pose a risk for serious complications, including fractured vertebrae, nerve and spinal cord damage, and even death. Since it can be difficult to judge the severity of a whiplash injury, you should be examined by a medical professional any time whiplash is suspected.
What Are Whiplash Injuries?
Also called neck strain or sprain, whiplash is one of the most common injuries to drivers and passengers involved in car accidents, affecting millions of people globally each year. It results in damage to the muscles, ligaments, and nerves in the neck. In rare cases, whiplash can affect the spine, leading to fractures. Healthcare professionals refer to conditions that occur due to whiplash injuries as whiplash-associated disorders.
Whiplash injuries, even mild ones, are treated as medical emergencies since they involve the cervical spine, which extends from the upper back into the neck and attaches at the base of the skull. The cervical spine and skull serve as protective structures for the central nervous system. Even if you don’t immediately feel the effects of whiplash following an accident, you should seek medical attention to rule out damage to the spinal cord and brain.
What Causes Whiplash Injuries?
Sudden forceful movements, such as deceleration or acceleration, put a strain on the neck. The neck serves as a shock absorber for the skull in an attempt to protect the brain. When a vehicle stops suddenly, the head, neck, and body move at different speeds, with the neck continuing to move rapidly in a forward, then backward motion. Whiplash is the result of the muscles, ligaments, and bones in the neck compressing and hyperextending too quickly.
Although car accidents are the leading cause of whiplash injuries, they can happen with any sudden or jerky movements, such as those from:
Adults over age 65 and women are more likely to suffer long-lasting effects from whiplash. Older adults are more vulnerable to muscle and bone injuries, and women are at higher risk due to their shorter stature and differences in spinal structure. They also have less muscle tissue to absorb the shock of sudden impact. Vehicles are designed with men in mind. Seat backs, headrests, and other protective features may not be as effective for shorter or lighter-weight drivers.
What Risks Are Associated With Whiplash Injuries?
Symptoms of whiplash can be immediate, or they may take a few hours or days to appear. The more force exerted on the neck, the more severe your whiplash injuries are likely to be. The risks from whiplash injuries include:
- Pain and stiffness in the neck
- Pain that radiates to the head, face, shoulder, and back
- Tenderness to the touch
- Nerve damage
- Numbness or loss of sensation
- Burning or tingling
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
- Vision problems
- Hoarseness or loss of voice
- Loss of consciousness
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Concussion or traumatic brain injury
- Fractures of the vertebrae
- Deformity of the spine
- Spinal cord damage
What Is the Treatment for Whiplash Injuries?
When whiplash is suspected, the patient is placed in a cervical collar to stabilize the neck and reduce pain until a medical team can evaluate the injuries. Doctors make a diagnosis of whiplash after first ruling out more serious conditions. You will undergo a physical evaluation of the head, spine, and neck, as well as a neurological examination to assess for potential spinal cord damage.
Diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs allow healthcare providers to look for potential damage to bones and soft tissue. Doctors use a grading system to diagnose the severity of whiplash injuries. Ratings are given on a scale from zero, which indicates no injury, to four. A four rating may be a sign of neurological involvement, including possible fractures of the vertebrae, a misaligned spine, or pressure on the nerves and spinal cord.
If you are diagnosed with whiplash, the focus will be on controlling the symptoms you’re experiencing, including pain. The goal of treatment is to rest the injury and give strained muscles, tendons, and ligaments time to heal on their own. Whiplash is treated with:
Analgesics, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, and nerve blocks may be prescribed to help with pain and swelling.
Cold and Heat Therapy
You may be advised to apply cold packs for the first seven to 10 days to reduce swelling and inflammation. If symptoms persist, heat therapy promotes blood flow to the area and speeds healing.
Participating in physical therapy strengthens the neck and back muscles and helps you regain function more quickly.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
Mild electrical currents are delivered to the nerve endings to ease pain after a whiplash injury.
Radiofrequency Nerve Ablation
Heat energy is used to target nerve endings so they stop sending pain signals to the brain.
In some cases, surgery is necessary to repair damaged ligaments or fractured vertebrae from a whiplash injury.
How Long Is the Recovery From a Whiplash Injury?
Mild cases of whiplash usually resolve within a few days or weeks, but more severe injuries can require several months or longer to heal. One study found that up to 14% of patients still had symptoms six months after their accident. These patients are more likely to develop chronic whiplash disorder, suffering from ongoing pain and inflammation that lasts the remainder of their lives.
Neck pain, limited neck mobility, ongoing muscle pain and spasms, recurrent headaches, and nausea may lead to permanent disability, preventing patients from returning to the work they did prior to the accident.