What is whiplash?

Whiplash is an injury to the neck caused by a sudden movement of the head (backwards and/or forwards) which stretches and damages the soft tissues in the neck (they are sprained). Whiplash is commonly caused by car accidents.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

The symptoms of whiplash usually take a few hours to develop and include:

  • Neck pain
  • Neck stiffness
  • Difficulty moving your head
  • Shoulder and arm pain
  • Headaches
  • Lower back pain
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pins and needles

Symptoms will usually worsen over the first few days following the injury. Recovery from whiplash can take a few weeks, a few months or longer in some cases.  

What causes whiplash?

Whiplash is caused by a sudden movement of the head, either forwards, backwards or sideways.

The most common causes of whiplash are:

  • Car accidents
  • A blow to the head, such as in boxing or rugby
  • A fall where the head is jerked suddenly

How can whiplash be diagnosed?

In general, damage to the soft tissues of the neck (muscles and ligaments) cannot be seen on a standard x-ray scan. Therefore, a diagnosis is usually made based on a physical examination which looks for muscle spasms and tenderness.

What is the treatment for whiplash?

Usually whiplash will get better on it own, however, it can help to keep the neck mobile (neck braces are not recommended), to take painkillers to manage any pain and to carry out special stretches and exercises. Physical therapy can also be recommended for whiplash patients. It can also help to apply ice to the neck the first 24 hours following injury.