Whiplash is a neck injury caused by the rapid back and forth motion of the neck. Whiplash injury is mostly caused due to car accidents but sports accidents, exercising with bad form, physical abuse, and traumas such as a fall can also cause a whiplash injury. The fast, sudden movement causes the cervical spine to experience extreme stress and can result in damaging neck muscles and tendons.
Medically referred to as cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD) syndrome, the common symptoms associated with whiplash are:
- Neck pain: Neck pain due to whiplash typically is a result of ligaments and muscle sprains, but it can also be caused by joint and vertebrae disc injuries. The pain associated with a whiplash injury can range from moderate to severe, affecting a general area or radiating from the shoulder to the arms.
- Stiffness: The damage to the neck muscles and tendons may cause neck stiffness and consequently a reduced range of motion.
- Headache and neck instability: As muscles or joints of the cervical spine become irritated, it may cause headaches.
- Shoulder/Upper back pain: Tearing of neck muscles may cause pain in the soft tissues of the shoulders and/or upper back.
- Radiating numbness: Due to a whiplash injury, one of the spinal nerve roots may become compressed and inflamed, causing radiating weakness or numbness from the shoulders to the fingers. Typically, the numbness is felt on one side of the body but can persist on both sides depending on the severity of the issue.
Other associated issues with whiplash include dizziness, fatigue, vision problems, trouble sleeping, and emotional changes. These are more serious disorders and are mostly attributed to a concussion suffered during an accident that caused the whiplash injury.
A survey was conducted in the UK between 2014 and 2017. The results of 1,070 participants showed that the most common types of injuries sustained from road traffic accidents
include: whiplash and minor bruising.
Self-Care for Whiplash
If the symptoms of whiplash are mild, there are some self-care measures you can take for quick relief. These include:
- Rest: It’s recommended to take things easy in the first few days of the injury, avoiding movements that exacerbate neck injury and irritation.
- Cold/hot therapy: Applying an ice pack or heat to the affected area can alleviate pain and swelling. The ice pack or heat can be applied alternately for a few days following the injury.
- Over-the-counter medications: Certain over-the-counter medications can help with relieving pain associated with the injury. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil can block pain receptors, and NSAIDs can reduce inflammation. It’s important to check the labels of the medications to see if you are suited to use them to avoid any adverse reactions.
Medical Care for Whiplash
If the symptoms are moderate to severe, it’s best to seek medical attention immediately. A doctor will check for neck instability and reduced mobility, and the diagnosis may require imaging tests such as a CT scan and MRI to eliminate the possibility of bone fractures and brain injuries.
The treatment depends on the severity of the injury. For mild and some moderate cases, self-care measures would be recommended by the doctor along with medications for pain relief. For more severe cases, one or a combination of the following, treatment options may be prescribed by the physician:
- Physical Therapy: A physical therapy program by a trained therapist may be recommended to improve the strength and flexibility of the neck muscles, which can alleviate pain and stress on the spine in some cases.
- Manual Manipulation: Manual adjustments to the spine may be required after a whiplash injury. These adjustments are made by a licensed chiropractor to alleviate pain in the neck and increase the range of motion.
- Injections: Injections may be prescribed in some cases to target specific areas depending on the severity of the injury. These may include cervical epidural steroid injection for reducing nerve and tissue inflammation from vertebrae injury, cervical facet joint injection for providing relief within the joint, and trigger point injection to help an irritated muscle bundle.
- Prescription Medications: In more severe cases of a whiplash injury, prescription medications may be recommended to help with the pain. These include muscle relaxants and opioids to be taken as per the prescription of the physician.
The general prognosis for whiplash injury varies according to the degree of severity of the injury. Other therapies such as acupuncture may also be recommended depending on the case of the injury. Some patients may require psychotherapy after the injury for any post-traumatic stress disorder sustained due to the accident.