Healthy Living

What Is Whiplash? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Key Takeaways

  • A whiplash injury is mainly caused by the sudden and abrupt movement of the head and neck.
  • The RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) can help reduce the inflammation within 72 hours.
  • The various muscles connected to the head and neck get severely affected in a whiplash.

When people suffer from a whiplash, they experience severe pain in the lower neck region, which can spread over their shoulders, arms, and head. They can also suffer from headaches, numbness, and a painful stiff neck. The pain gets accelerated faster in the area around the neck, which needs to be treated with care and caution.

Whiplash is also called as a "neck sprain" or "neck strain". It is mainly caused by injury to the intervertebral joints, which are located between the vertebrae. The injury can affect the discs, ligaments, cervical muscles, and nerve roots.

What causes whiplash?

A whiplash injury is mainly caused by the sudden and abrupt movement of the head and neck either forward or backward while the head jerks in motion. The sudden movements of the neck and head are usually due to a car accident or when a person quickly changes the position of his head.

Whiplash diagnosis

A doctor or a physiotherapist will conduct a physical examination of the affected area. Most of the time, the diagnosis can be done with the help of an X-ray or a CT scan to rule out any complications. It is essential that whiplash gets diagnosed before the start of the treatment. Also, the doctors must ensure that the neck injury will not be mistaken as a spinal injury. In most cases, soft tissues such as discs, muscles, and ligaments cannot be detected by standard X-rays machines. That is why specialized imaging tests such as CT scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are required to find the exact cause and location of the injury. The doctor has to do repeated scans with the help of specialized devices until the cause of injury is confirmed, in case the injury is serious.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

The main symptoms of whiplash may be delayed for about 24 hours or more after getting the injury or the initial trauma. Most of the symptoms depend on person-to-person and also depends on the type of injury a person had.

Some of the symptoms that may develop at the initial stages include:

  • Mild or severe pain in the neck 
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache
  • Mild pain in the shoulder blades and upper portion of the back 
  • Lower back pain may get severe (depending on the injury)
  • Numbness in the arms and hands
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Head gets heavier and having a difficulty in remembering or concentrating
  • Tiredness due to the painful injury
  • Sleeplessness, which makes a person dull and inactive

Whiplash treatment

How is whiplash treated?

There are a number of ways to treat a whiplash injury. Most of the treatments depend on the severity of the injury. A soft tissue injury needs a complete pain relief.

Pain medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) are the most effective. However, these pain relievers must be taken under the doctor’s advice. Regularly taking the medicines will help reduce the pain and offers complete relief.

It is also advised to do simple and gentle exercises to enable easier body movements. The exercises that involve physical therapy, traction, and massage are the most effective.

Moreover, the treatments with the help of heat, ice, injections, and ultrasound, can also be useful to have a faster recovery. It all helps but still depends on the patient’s condition and the severity of the injury.

Treatment changes

In the past, whiplash injuries were often treated with complete immobilization using a cervical collar. The injured neck was fitted inside the collar, which used to offer complete support to the head, neck, and also to the shoulder and arms. However, according to the latest technological development, instead of immobilizing the injured neck, patients are highly encouraged to have early movements. Moreover, the therapy that includes ice is highly recommended. 

Most of the treatments are given for about 24 hours followed by gentle and active movements in the form of light exercises.

Effective RICE method

A whiplash injury should be given time to heal and further activity that could cause any discomfort should be avoided. Ice can be applied to the injury, which is a very important part of the treatment. The ice treatment can help heal the injury faster. The ice helps in reducing the pain and offers early recovery without further delay.

The RICE method includes rest, ice, compression, and elevation, which can help people recover within 72 hours. It does not only minimizes swelling, but it also helps in preventing inflammation and offers complete relief to the injured body parts.

Rehabilitation program

When anti-inflammatory medications are taken on an everyday basis, they can effectively help reduce the swelling, pain, or achiness from the injury.

When the injury starts to heal, the physiotherapist or doctor will advise the patients to undergo a rehabilitation program. It is highly beneficial for the patients to undergo a rehabilitation program to help strengthen their muscles. Moreover, stretching exercises must be carried out on a daily basis. Such exercises can help the patients to slowly become active again.

The exercises should be carried out with caution and under the strict guidance of a physiotherapist. Always make sure that the exercises do not cause any pressure or pain over the body, especially over the injured soft tissues. The exercises should be carried out according to the individual's readiness.

While doing the exercises, one should not do it in a hurry. In the case of pain or pressure, you should talk with your physiotherapist. One should get complete guidance and choose the most suitable exercises that can be easy to do and highly effective in obtaining the results.

Having good posture is also essential since it can completely reduce the stress in the body. Maintaining good posture with correct sitting positions will yield to a faster recovery as well as better results. To improve poor posture, one can make use of a posture brace or support.

The migraine pattern

The brain is naturally a numb structure. It means that whenever you experience pain in your head, it comes from the external layers of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) that surround your brain. The external system has connections to your neck, which is why you experience pain at the base of your skull.

The peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is outside the areas of your brain, is usually the main driver of the symptoms you experience. The structural injuries, which are part of the neck and the peripheral nervous system are needed to be effectively addressed.

Concussions tend to excite the nervous system, which then leads to a hyperactive state. You may experience headaches and other symptoms similar to a concussion. Most concussions are mainly triggered by mechanisms inside the brain, but the symptoms can also be continuously produced due to the structural damage outside of the brain.

The brain can recover but the nervous system remains hyperactive due to neck pain. The symptoms are being driven from the outside rather than the inside. The brain and neck are connected to each other and often have biomechanical issues. Such issues related to the neck are usually overlooked when it comes to concussion assessments.

Structural damage

The nerves around the head are highly sensitive. Moreover, when the neck muscles are engaged with the nerves, it gets irritated and starts sending pain signals to the head. 

The hyperactivity never calms down because of the neck injury. Neck injuries can be of different types. There will be times when you will have issues on the upper side of your neck. 

The muscles connected to the brain are:

1) Splenius capitis muscle       

This strap-like muscle is located in the back of the neck that connects the skull’s base to the vertebrae. This muscle is smooth and supple, which feels like thick guitar strings. It can get damaged at several places during an injury.

2) Facet joints 

These joints are located in your spine. They enable you to properly twist or bend and make your back flexible. The joints also have cartilage, which allows smooth friction against each other. Moreover, nerves from the spinal cord come out through these joints.  

Effective treatment

Usually, the treatment plan first addresses the type of muscle injury along with the neck pain. Treatment is usually done with the help of physical therapy as well as regular stretching and strengthening exercises.

A series of isometric mobilizations offers complete relief to the body. Doctors may also prescribe nerve-stabilizing medications, which help break the nerve-firing patterns. The plan would appropriately treat the injury as well as begin to regulate an extremely hyperactive nervous system.

Concussion evaluation and treatment

Neck trauma can be attributed to a variety of concussion-like symptoms both in physical and cognitive aspects. Most neck injuries perpetuate intense headaches, but the muscles offer restrictions that can show other symptoms such as dizziness, fogginess, visual problems, etc. 

The doctors can identify the problems relating to the neck and muscles. Moreover, the severity of neck pain and headaches are considered while deciding on the type of treatment. Neck trauma that is associated with biomechanical issues and concussions should be properly evaluated and treated.

Neck injury treatments are mainly dependent on the diagnosis of the neck issue. If the diagnosis is made correctly, then the treatment process would be easier and more effective.