Image of a woman experiencing whiplash.

Signs of Whiplash and How You Can Treat It

This article was written by Chris Marshall

Human physiology relates to the way our muscles, bones, and joints work together to produce movement. Everything we do involves movement. When we exercise, perform daily tasks, and go to work, our body moves using different ranges of motion to function. 

Range of motion can be defined as the extent to which our body parts can move around a joint or fixed point. When neck movement occurs outside of these normal ranges, this is known as whiplash.

*Please note that this guide is meant to be informative in nature and should not be used as a form of treatment. In the case of whiplash, it may be best to consult a doctor who can assess your symptoms and make a detailed diagnosis. 

 

What is Whiplash?

 

Whiplash can be defined as an injury to the muscles, tendons, and surrounding soft tissues in your neck caused by sudden or vigorous neck movement. Whiplash usually occurs as a result of forced head movement in one direction then quickly back again straight after. 

The force of your head and neck moving beyond their normal ranges of motion may cause the tendons, muscles, and ligaments to become overstretched or strained. Proceeding symptoms may include pain and discomfort in your neck, shoulders, and lower back. 

 

What are the Common Causes of Whiplash?

 

In most cases, whiplash is commonly caused by motor vehicle accidents. When this occurs, your neck may quickly move forward and back as a result of a rear-end or side impact. 

Another common cause of whiplash is sudden impact during contact sports such as rugby, American football, and boxing. Less common causes relate to tasks carried out in daily life. These may include slipping, falling, or being hit by a heavy object. 

 

Signs of Whiplash Injury

 

The severity and frequency of whiplash signs and symptoms tend to vary between individuals. In most cases, whiplash pain begins 6 to 12 hours following the incident. 

When the first signs of whiplash present, it may start as an uncomfortable feeling and develop into any of the symptoms below over the following days. 

Common signs and symptoms of whiplash injury include: 

  • Neck pain and stiffness (Most common sign of whiplash).
  • Shoulder pain.
  • Arm pain.
  • Jaw pain.
  • Back pain.

Signs and symptoms of severe whiplash:

  • Headaches and difficulty concentrating.
  • Dizziness and fatigue.
  • Visual disturbances.
  • Muscle spasms and weakness.
  • Pins and needles (Numbness and pain in your hands, arms, and shoulders). 

Over a few days to several weeks, the signs of whiplash after a car accident or by the other means stated above are likely to improve gradually. The exact timeline will depend on the severity of the injury. In some cases, some symptoms may be felt for months following. 

Some of the symptoms above may also be caused by other health problems. This is why it's important to consult a trained healthcare professional. 

 

How is Whiplash Diagnosed? 

 

During the examination, a healthcare professional will examine the movement of your neck. They'll also ask about any signs of whiplash and details regarding the possible incident. 

Following this, they may send you for a neck x-ray to rule out the possibility of a dislocation or fracture. As whiplash is a soft tissue injury, it won't show up on the x-ray. 

 
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At-home Treatment for Whiplash

 

In most cases, at-home whiplash treatments can help to improve signs of whiplash after an accident. The most suitable treatment option will depend on your symptoms, health condition, and injury severity. These treatments may also be combined if appropriate. 

 

Pain Medication 

 

Over-the-counter pain relief medications such as muscle relaxants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen may help to improve the pain by reducing the associated inflammation and relaxing the surrounding muscles. These can be used to treat mild to moderate whiplash pain and should be taken according to your doctor's and the package's instructions.

Over-the-counter medications should not be combined with prescription ones. If symptoms persist, consult your doctor again who will look at alternative options.

 

Exercises and Physical Therapy

 

Following a whiplash injury, at-home exercises can help restore range of motion and function to your head, neck, and shoulders. Alongside this, they can also help to support blood flow and build muscle strength. Specific at-home exercises may include rolling your shoulders or tilting your head from side to side.

For more severe symptoms, a healthcare professional may recommend a more structured physical therapy routine. As part of this, the exercise routine may include specific stretches, exercises, and massages that need to be performed daily. 

The suitability of physical therapy should be assessed by a trained healthcare professional first. 

 

Chiropractic Care

 

Gentle stretching of your head, neck, and shoulders can help to stimulate and relax the affected muscles to provide pain relief. In more severe cases where the muscles are too tight, a more vigorous stretch may be applied. These can be carried out at home with the help of a chiropractor. 

Chiropractors may also perform spinal manipulation techniques. During this, they identify the joints that are misaligned and position them back into place. Pressure may be applied by moving the joint in the direction of the constriction. 

 

Red Light Therapy

 

Red light therapy can be used as a safe and painless treatment option for several acute and chronic injuries. It works by using low levels of red light that targets your cells to promote increased cell function and tissue repair.

When managing pain and injury, can help to reduce the levels of inflammation and heal damaged tissue to reduce the symptoms of whiplash. Most of the symptoms described above tend to be a result of inflammation which makes red light therapy a great way to reduce pain and promote healing. 

 

 

Several types of red light gadgets can be used that are designed to fit around certain body parts. They may also come as handheld gadgets that are pointed at the target area. 

Research into red light therapy has shown promising applications as a non-invasive and affordable treatment option. 

 

Neck Braces and Collars

 

Following a whiplash injury, neck braces and collars are commonly used to immobilize your head and neck to reduce pain. 

Compared to more active treatments such as physical therapy and stretching, neck braces and collars tend to be less commonly used. In most cases, doctors and other healthcare professionals will recommend a combination of the other treatments discussed above. 

 

When to Call a Healthcare Professional

 

Following a possible whiplash incident, it’s always best to consult a trained healthcare professional who will make a detailed assessment. 

However, in the event that a healthcare professional hasn't been called, immediate help should be taken when:

  • Symptoms continue to get worse.
  • New symptoms develop.
  • No progress has been seen during the initial treatment phase.

When in doubt, it's always best to act on the side of caution and seek help. 

 

How to Prevent Whiplash

 

As modern day technology continues to improve, vehicle designs are reducing the chances of whiplash when an incident occurs. When driving or sitting as a passenger in a motor vehicle, ensure your seat and belt are adjusted and fitted correctly. Make sure the driver is in a suitable state and avoid driving in unsuitable conditions.

During contact sports, ensure you wear the correct protective equipment throughout such as headgear, gloves, and pads. If you feel unsure about anything, consult a trained professional before continuing participation. 

When performing daily activities, make sure that you only carry out ones that are appropriate for your ability and fitness levels. Make sure to ask for help if you’re unsure. 

 

For more articles on neck pain, read:

 

References 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7175139/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1250253/#:~:text=The%20cervical%20spine's%20range%20of,of%20rotation%20to%20both%20sides.
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684148/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5851023/
  5. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547742/%23:~:text%3DNSAIDs%2520are%2520typically%2520divided%2520into,meloxicam%252C%2520piroxicam&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1718714214747287&usg=AOvVaw3008_LE66aRDXhhmQ8yxr4 
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34561976/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20364057/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9980499/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/ 
Chris Marshall

Chris Marshall

Job Title: Health and Fitness Content Writer
Location: United Kingdom
Bio: Chris Marshall is an experienced health and fitness writer with a passion to empower others to achieve better health and well-being through meaningful lifestyle changes.

With a background in nutrition and fitness, Chris aims to deliver science-based, informative content to educate others.

Alongside health and fitness writing, he also works with private online clients to build positive lifestyle habits and improve their overall well-being.

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