Whiplash is a common neck condition that occurs as a result of a sudden backwards-forwards motion of the head, often associated with car accidents. This type of injury can stretch the muscles and ligaments as the neck moves out of its normal range of motion. Women are more likely to experience whiplash than men, presumably because men's necks are usually stronger.

Causes of Whiplash

In addition to resulting from vehicular accidents, most commonly rear-end collisions, whiplash can occur from injuries suffered during:

  • Roller coaster rides
  • Contact sports
  • Physical abuse

Any activity in which the neck area is moved suddenly or violently may result in whiplash. Being punched or tackled puts an individual at risk for the injury, as does being shaken. One of the injuries suffered in shaken baby syndrome is whiplash.

Symptoms of Whiplash

Patients with whiplash usually develop some symptoms within 24 hours of the injury. It is not unusual, however, for other symptoms to appear, or for symptoms to worsen, weeks after the original injury. Physical injuries after whiplash may include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches, especially at the base of skull
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing or buzzing in the ears

A wide range of cognitive or emotional symptoms may also result from whiplash. These include:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Memory problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression, anxiety, irritability
  • Fatigue

Because whiplash may occur with other serious injuries, such as disc or ligament injury, or concussion, it is important for patients to report severe or worsening symptoms to their physicians, particularly if their pain spreads to their shoulders or arms, if they experience weakness, numbness or tingling in their arms, or if moving the head becomes painful.

Treatment of Whiplash

Most patients recover from whiplash injuries within 4 to 6 weeks through the help of conservative treatments, such as applying ice to the area and taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. More severe cases of whiplash may require corticosteroid injections or the use of a cervical collar for several hours during the day to immobilize the neck. It is important to wear a cervical collar for limited periods of time and only under medical guidance.

Patients with whiplash should be carefully evaluated by their physicians before engaging in any physical therapy for the condition. While gentle massage, chiropractic care, electrical stimulation or ultrasound can provide significant relief, exercise, even mild exercise, may be contraindicated if the patient has also suffered a concussion.

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