Whiplash is a neck injury that occurs when the head is suddenly thrown backwards and forwards, causing muscles, ligaments and other tissues to overstretch. Whiplash injuries usually occur during motor vehicle collisions, sports injuries or physical abuse.
The main symptom is neck pain. Pain may sometimes be felt in the back of the head, shoulder and back. You may experience dizziness, headache, neck stiffness and arm numbness. Symptoms usually last from days to weeks but may occasionally be chronic. In a select few, a condition known as chronic whiplash syndrome occurs where symptoms last for more than 6 months.
When you present with a neck injury, your doctor will review your history, symptoms and the incident that caused the injury. A physical examination is performed, where you are asked to move your neck in various positions to reveal decreased range of motion and muscle tightness. Imaging studies such as X-rays, CT and MRI scans may be ordered to look for fracture, arthritis or dislocations, or injuries to soft tissues such as ligaments, intervertebral discs or spinal cord.
Treatment for a whiplash injury is usually conservative. Healing usually occurs on its own. Your doctor will prescribe anti-inflammatory and analgesic medication to control pain and swelling, and muscle relaxants for severe muscle spasms. A cervical collar, for not more than three hours, may also be recommended for the first few days after the injury. For more chronic pain, physical therapy modalities such as heat, massage, ultrasound and electrical stimulation may be helpful.
While some with chronic symptoms find it difficult to return to full activity and require prolonged treatment, most people with whiplash are able to resume their regular activities in a few days or weeks.