Whiplash is a term that many people have heard of, but few truly understand. It is an injury that frequently results from vehicular accidents, most commonly when one vehicle is rear-ended by another. Whiplash occurs when the head and neck are suddenly jerked forward and then backward in a whip-like motion, causing strain and damage to the soft tissues and joint structures of the neck. Although most commonly associated with motor vehicle accidents, whiplash can also occur in other situations, such as contact sports and falls.
Most of us think of a true rear-end collision; the sudden acceleration-deceleration forces on the occupants’ bodies can lead to the neck’s hyperextension and flexion, which results in a sprain-strain injury. However, whiplash can also occur from side impact or trauma that impacts the side of the neck.
The symptoms of whiplash can vary in severity and onset time, making it a challenging injury to diagnose. Common symptoms include neck pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. Additionally, individuals with whiplash may experience headaches, shoulder pain, tingling or numbness in the arms, fatigue, and even cognitive difficulties. These symptoms can appear immediately after the injury or may take several days to manifest.
Diagnosing whiplash is typically based on a combination of the patient’s medical history, a physical examination, and diagnostic tests. Doctors may use X-rays, CT scans, or MRI scans to assess the extent of the injury and rule out other possible causes of the symptoms, but this is normally not required. Most cases of whiplash are diagnosed clinically after a thorough history and physical examination by a chiropractor or physiotherapist. A comprehensive evaluation is crucial as it helps determine the most suitable treatment approach.
The treatment of whiplash often involves a combination of strategies to alleviate pain and promote healing. Common approaches and considerations include:
Rest: Resting the neck is suitable for some patients during the initial stages of recovery to prevent further strain on the injured tissues.
We normally call it “relative rest”. This means we usually want patients to keep it moving to some extent so that the tissues don’t decondition, atrophy and stiffen up. Pure rest is rarely recommended.
Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription medications may be recommended to manage pain and inflammation. Ice or heat can also be used if a patient finds it helpful for their pain.
Physical Therapy: Physical therapy helps restore range of motion and strengthen the neck muscles, which is crucial for recovery.
Exercise: Gentle neck exercises can be beneficial for recovery, but they should be guided by a healthcare professional to avoid exacerbating the injury. In the past, practitioners would recommend neck braces to wear. This is very rarely suggested nowadays. Careful movement usually helps a patient recover faster and gets their neck back to a functional pain-free state sooner.
Preventing whiplash is not always possible, especially in the case of unexpected vehicular accidents. However, there are measures that individuals can take to reduce the risk of sustaining this injury. Ensuring that the headrest in a vehicle is adjusted to the appropriate height can help minimize the risk of whiplash during a rear-end collision. While driving, try to keep your head against the headrest instead of slouching forward.
Perhaps the best way to reduce the consequences of a fall, a motor vehicle accident or an impact during sports is to keep your neck strong and mobile. Stretching and range of motion exercises help to remind your neck of what a full movement feels like. We never want our neck to be thrust into an extreme range of movement that it has never experienced before. Perhaps more important, though, is the strengthening of the neck. Keeping the various muscles around the neck strong will improve its capacity for tolerating stressors and impact forces.
Whiplash, though often underestimated, is a significant injury that can result from various traumatic events, with vehicular accidents being the most common cause. Understanding its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention is essential for both healthcare professionals and the general public.
At Burlington Sports Therapy, we often take a multi-disciplinary approach to recovery. Diagnosis and imaging (if necessary) through the chiropractor, followed by some active release treatment, is a good starting point. Adding in some massage therapy and then exercises with the physiotherapist can also be a great strategy to allow for a complete, comprehensive recovery and reduce the risk of chronic symptoms. Most cases of whiplash are very treatable, and most patients resume a normal life, free of any neck pain in the future.