Because it is one of the most common injuries sustained in a car accident, most people have heard of whiplash. However, many people do not know exactly what it is or how the condition is treated. The term whiplash refers to a specific form of neck strain that occurs as a result of sudden, changing movements in the head and neck. Athletes can be prone to this issue, but it is most commonly seen after a car accident. When an impact to the body or head causes the head to jerk suddenly back and forth, this causes the neck strain known as whiplash, and the unnatural impact of a car accident often causes this.

The severity of whiplash can vary depending on the impact in the initial collision, meaning recovery plans and treatment times also vary. Without proper treatment, whiplash can worsen over time and lead to other injuries or chronic, long-term pain. Doctors who specialize in car accident-related injuries often use a combination of home remedies, physical therapy, and chiropractic care to reduce pain and repair soft tissue damage. In many cases, whiplash can be completely healed.

How Whiplash Happens

While whiplash can occur in any car accident, it is often associated with rear-end collisions. The person whose car is hit from behind is extremely prone to the sudden, back and forth movement that forces the head and neck to move unnaturally. In a short period of time, the neck is both hyperextended when forced backward and hyperflexed when thrown forward. These two impacts in quick succession can damage the soft tissues in the head and neck, ranging from minor sprains to more serious tears.

In addition to the soft tissues, the cervical (upper) spine is also forced into an s-shape that is not natural, which can affect the spine in more long-term ways.

Do I Have Whiplash?

Many people mistake whiplash, which is a form of neck strain, for a neck sprain despite differences. Neck strain such as whiplash is caused by direct damage to the muscles and tendons, while sprains occur when the ligaments that connect bones are torn. It may be difficult to determine which issue you are experiencing, and an expert may need to perform diagnostic exams to decide the best treatment options.

If you suspect you may have whiplash, there are a number of symptoms that will cause you to seek care. In addition to general pain and tension in the neck and shoulders, you may also experience:

  • Headaches, specifically ones that are concentrated in the base of the skull, or radiate up and towards the forehead
  • Tenderness at the injury site or around the head
  • Stiffness or pain when moving the head to look over the shoulders, or moving the head side to side and back and forth
  • Loss of mobility or range of motion in the head and neck
  • Hard or knotted muscles in the upper back, shoulders, and neck

Some people also report dizziness, fatigue, jaw pain, arm pain or weakness, and visual disturbances. These symptoms may indicate that the impact also caused mild brain damage.

Though whiplash usually occurs in the moment of a crash, symptoms may not be apparent for hours, or sometimes even days, after the accident has occurred. The initial shock of an accident can cause you to go into shock or experience an adrenaline rush that hides pains like the ones associated with whiplash, and it is not until after these effects wear off that you will begin to notice whiplash. This delay does not mean the injury hasn’t occurred or can’t be worsening, however. It is important to be seen by a medical professional even if you do not notice signs of whiplash, as they may be able to identify it early and begin a treatment plan in advance.

Diagnosing Whiplash

Most experts will be able to diagnose whiplash through a conversation and a physical examination. They may examine your head, neck, and/or back to identify any injuries. If more information is needed, you may be sent for diagnostic imaging to verify whiplash or better ascertain the severity of your condition.

An x-ray may be performed initially, but are not always comprehensive enough to diagnose whiplash and related injuries. The most common scans used for whiplash diagnosis are MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT scans (computer tomography), as both offer the ability to see inside of the body. These images can show bones out of alignment, tears in tissues, and other issues that cannot be identified through external examinations. By identifying the root cause of your pain, doctors can develop personalized treatment plans based on this information.

During the rapid movement that causes whiplash, it is possible for the brain to move within the skull, leading to traumatic brain injuries like concussions. Proper diagnostic imaging can also identify injuries to the brain that may be related to whiplash, making them more important.

How Whiplash Is Treated

The treatment of whiplash is highly dependent on the severity, location, and root cause of the injury. A large part of the management of whiplash is simply being aware of your injury, how it occurred, and what can make it worse. The goals of whiplash treatment will be to control pain and restore prior range of motion, allowing for prior activity levels to continue.

A common image of whiplash is a person in a neck brace, or soft cervical collar, intended to reduce movement and prevent additional injuries. This is no longer the best practice for most cases of whiplash, as the lack of movement has been shown to slow the healing process. It is instead recommended that whiplash patients avoid any sharp movements, but maintain normal, gentle movements to help the neck regain strength over time. Range of motion exercises that are implemented early lead to more fast and thorough recoveries. Only in the case of an abnormal spinal alignment is it advised to restrict motion.

One way that this gentle movement is encouraged is through physical therapy, which is designed by an expert to slowly strengthen muscles and reduce pain over time. This is often paired with a number of home remedies recommended by your therapist, such as rest and alternating use of hot and cold temperatures.

Whiplash Recovery

Like treatment, your recovery timeline for whiplash will depend on a large number of factors. Most standard cases begin to resolve around 6 weeks, but some cases can take a much shorter or longer time. This can usually be achieved with non-invasive therapies rather than surgical intervention.

In rarer cases, whiplash can become a chronic ailment that lasts for years or longer. Cases that present with severe neck pain, more limits to range of motion, and pain that spreads to the arms are more likely to lead to long-term issues. When regular whiplash becomes a chronic whiplash-associated disorder, additional complications may appear, particularly related to mood. Depression, anger, frustration, anxiety, and sleep disturbances are all commonly found in these patients

Recovery can also be more difficult when particular risk factors are present. Having had whiplash in the past, older age, existing issues with the neck or lower back, and a high-speed crash all make recovery more difficult. While you cannot always prevent whiplash, proper use of safety devices like seatbelts can help you avoid whiplash and these complications.

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