Can Whiplash Cause Neurological Problems?


Whiplash is a common soft tissue injury that often occurs after car accidents, accidents during certain sports, and other trauma to the body, including physical abuse. It is a result of the neck moving back and forth in a forceful manner, causing significant strain to the muscles and tendons (soft tissues) in the neck area.

Despite what you may believe or what may be presented in movies and television shows, whiplash can occur even with a relatively minimal amount of force behind the impact. For example, there is evidence that stress sustained during rear-end collisions is comparable to that sustained during very minor fender benders. There is also preliminary evidence that a condition known as late whiplash syndrome may exist, where you could not feel the effects of whiplash until up to six months from the initial traumatic incident.

Whiplash Symptoms

Except for in the case of late whiplash syndrome, symptoms of whiplash usually appear within 24 hours to a few days of the inciting incident and can last for weeks or longer, depending on the success of treatment. The symptoms can differ in degree according to the incident that led to it, and everyone will experience it in different ways. That being said, you may have this condition if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Stiffness in the neck and shoulder area, or sometimes the arms
  • Severe headaches
  • Jaw pain
  • Sudden bouts of dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased range of motion in the neck
  • Arm and leg weakness

In more severe cases, you may also experience difficulty focusing or concentrating, increased irritability, memory problems, sleep disturbances, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), blurred vision, and depression.

It is important to seek medical attention after a car accident, sports accident, or another form of physical trauma that may have resulted in whiplash, even if you are experiencing only a limited number of these symptoms. Prompt diagnosis will improve the overall outcome of the condition.

Effects of Whiplash

Whiplash is, of course, mainly experienced by those who suffer it as a physical condition. Their necks and shoulders ache, even to the point that whiplash causes difficulty of sleeping and they learn to manage periods of fatigue. However, there is evidence that whiplash also causes changes to the brain, the effects of which may be experienced by patients for years.

In fact, due to the proximity of the brain and spinal cord to the area most affected by whiplash, it may be no surprise that there could be related neurological problems. Two such neurological problems include damage to the nervous system and damage to the brain via a concussion.

Whiplash and the Brain

Some people experience what is known as whiplash-associated disorders (WADs) after experiencing whiplash. Up to 50% of people who sustain whiplash may never fully recover and instead could experience one of these disorders for the rest of their life. These disorders can affect patients for years, and their nature has been something of a mystery for years. Those who experience this kind of chronic whiplash-associated disorder often report pain with no obvious cause, and the pain may resist treatment.

Researchers have discovered that there may be disturbances to the sensory processing mechanisms of patients with whiplash-associated disorders that cause hyper-excitability within the nervous system, causing more frequent, more painful flare-ups. Additionally, patients with such disorders demonstrate physical changes to the brain, including changes to blood flow in the areas of the brain that control pain response.

Whiplash and Nerve Damage

Though rare, nerve damage is a possible effect of whiplash, and as doctors learn more about this condition, they have found that such damage occurs more and more frequently. In some cases, there has been physical evidence of lesions to the nervous system that can cause long-term pain. Patients who demonstrate evidence of this kind of nerve damage may experience pain and other symptoms and effects of whiplash for up to two years before there is any resolution.

Vertigo, or dizziness, is sometimes reported after whiplash and is also thought to be a result of nerve damage. Specifically, researchers believe that vertigo occurs as a result of over-excitation of the central nervous system, causing a disturbance in the sympathetic cervical nerves that exist in your neck and up through your ears. In other words, your nervous system becomes more sensitive to stimuli in your neck and ear area, causing otherwise unexplained changes to your equilibrium and thereby causing vertigo.

Whiplash and Concussion

Depending on the circumstances when the whiplash injury was sustained, many people also experience a concussion from whiplash. There is also an elevated chance of whiplash when a concussion occurs as a result of a sports injury. It is important to determine whether you are experiencing these conditions at the same time because both concussion and whiplash can cause significant problems to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is the part of the nervous system that controls vital functions for sustaining life, including heartbeat, digestion, and the acute stress response. Damage to this system could make you significantly more sensitive to pain than healthy individuals and also may impede your ability to properly respond to stressful experiences.

Risk Factors for Whiplash

Whiplash affects over two million Americans every year. In fact, it is the most common soft tissue injury sustained during car accidents and can happen to anyone. However, there are certain conditions or pre-existing factors that can make you particularly vulnerable to whiplash, or worse, vulnerable to chronic whiplash-associated disorders and lifelong whiplash-related pain or neurological damage.

  • Gender: women are significantly more likely to experience whiplash.
  • Medical history: People who have experienced previous injuries to the neck are more likely to have whiplash symptoms.
  • Age: As you grow older and your muscles become weaker, you become more vulnerable to potential whiplash. This is especially true after the age of fifty. Those who are under the age of five are also more vulnerable to whiplash.
  • Athletic participation: People who participate in contact sports such as American football or rugby report significantly more incidents of whiplash.