Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of the neck from a sudden jerking or “whipping” of the head. Research shows that when your vehicle is struck from the rear, your torso (chest area) accelerated forward as the seat back is propelled forward with the vehicle. While you head is freely suspended in the air on top of your neck, the acceleration of your torso and the relative still position of your head causes an unnatural bend or reversal of the curve in your cervical spine (neck). This reversed curve often times creates a type of motion that strains the muscles and ligaments of the neck beyond their normal range of motion.

In addition to car accidents, whiplash can be caused by roller coasters and other amusement park rides, sports injuries, or being punched or shaken. (Whiplash is one of the hallmarks of shaken baby syndrome.)

You may feel pain and stiffness in your neck for the first few days after a whiplash injury. You may feel better early on, but the pain and stiffness may come back several days later. These symptoms can last for months or years without proper treatment.

Neck Pain, Headache, Shoulder Pain, Headache and Jaw pain are all common symptoms, but they are not the only symptoms. You might notice a difference in the feeling of your hands and arms. Numbness, tingling and Muscle Weakness may be the only symptoms you experience, or you might have multiple symptoms. These are only just a few of the symptoms you might experience. The discomfort you feel may involve surrounding muscle groups in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms and may even reach into the low back and legs.

Steps to take care of your whiplash injury:

  • Visit your Chiropractor at Advanced Injury Rehabilitation to determine the extent of your injury and begin a recovery program to minimize your pain, strengthen the damaged tissues of your neck and back and gain advice on getting better quickly.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) as a short term help to decrease pain and to help control inflammation.
  • Apply ice or heat to the painful area. Use only ice for the first 72 hours after your injury (10 minutes on, 1 hour off). You can use heat after that. Heat may be applied with hot showers, hot compresses, or a heating pad. Be careful not to fall asleep with a heating pad or ice bag on. This can give you burns or frostbite.
  • Reduce or stop your normal physical activity for the first few days. This helps calm your symptoms and reduce swelling (inflammation).
  • Perform slow range-of-motion exercises — up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear — to gently stretch the neck muscles. Keep moving even though you don’t want to, never push yourself into the increased pain, just small movements within your comfort tolerance.
  • Have a partner gently massage the sore or painful areas.
  • Try sleeping on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a special neck pillow.
  • Use a soft neck collar for a short period of time to relieve discomfort. (Using a soft neck collar for a long time can make the neck muscles weaker and prolong your neck pain.)

You may want to reduce your activity only for the first couple of days. Then slowly resume your usual activities.

Activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your back or neck should be done with extra caution for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins as this may result in greater injury and prolonged recovery.

Other steps that may help your neck pain improve are:

  • Use relaxation techniques and regular exercise to prevent stress and tension in the neck muscles.
  • Learn stretching exercises for your neck and upper body. Stretch every day, especially before and after exercising.
  • A physical therapist can help you learn how to stretch correctly.
  • Use good posture, especially if you sit at a desk all day. Keep your back supported. Adjust your computer monitor to eye level. This prevents you from having to look up or down.
  • If you work at a computer, stretch your neck every hour or so.
  • Use a headset when on the telephone, especially if answering or using the phone is a main part of your job.
  • When reading or typing from documents at your desk, place them in a holder at eye level.
  • When you sleep, make sure your pillow supports your head and neck comfortably. You may need a special neck pillow. Make sure your mattress is firm enough.

Call your doctor if:

  • Neck pain and stiffness come back after they had cleared up
  • Neck pain is severe
  • The pain spreads to your shoulders or arms
  • You have numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms or legs
  • You have problems with your bladder or bowels

Headrests in your car can reduce the severity of neck pain from a car accident. Make sure that the headrest is positioned properly for your height, with the headrest centered at the large bump of your head, or the top of the headrest even with the top of your own head. This will minimize the whipping action and decrease the damage to your head and neck.

If you do get whiplash, quick and proper treatment is the key to recovering quickly. You should expect several weekly visits with your Chiropractor at first to maximize your opportunity to heal quickly. Medications as good as they make you feel, only cover the symptoms – leaving you with weakened muscles, recurrent headaches, arm and shoulder symptoms and can lead to dependency, stomach ulcerations and mental deficiencies. Chiropractors will help you learn proper stretching and strengthening exercises once your neck is healing. This reduces the chance that neck pain or stiffness will come back.

If you have any questions about our services, please contact us today at (801) 317-4757.

Hudgins TH, Shahban L, Alleva JT. Cervial sprain or strain. In: Frontera, WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD Jr, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 5.

Ronthal M. Arm and neck pain. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 32.

Verhagen AP, Scholten-Peeters GG, van Wingaarden S, de Bie R, Bierma-Zeinstra SMA. Conservative treatments for whiplash. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Apr 18;(2):CD003338.

Devereaux M. Neck Pain. Med Clin North Am. 2009;93:273-284.