Introduction

Whiplash occurs when the head moves suddenly from severe impact, such as during a car crash.  Whiplash can cause neck pain, upper back pain, shoulder pain, tight muscles, and burning or tingling sensations in your neck or upper back.  Most cases of whiplash can be treated with non-surgical methods that help relieve pain and restore mobility.

Anatomy

The cervical area of the spine is located in the neck.  Seven small bones (vertebrae) make up the cervical spine.  Except for the first two vertebrae, a pair of stabilizing joints connect the bones.  Muscles that attach to the back or side of the cervical spine help move the head, neck, ribs, and shoulders.

Causes

Whiplash most frequently occurs during car crashes when a car is rear-ended.  It may also result from sports, work, or violence related injuries.  The injury occurs when the head moves forward, backwards, or sideways suddenly, often to extreme degrees.  The muscles, ligaments, joints, or spine structures may be damaged.

Symptoms

Neck or upper back pain and stiffness may occur immediately or days after an incident.  Your pain may subside, but then come back after a few days.  Whiplash can cause symptoms in muscles located on the head, neck, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will review your medical history and conduct some tests to help diagnose whiplash.  You should tell your doctor about your incident and your symptoms.  Diagnostic imaging may be used to help identify injured soft tissues or bones.  If you experience significant headache pain and certain neurological symptoms, your doctor may conduct imaging tests to rule out a concussion, a type of traumatic brain injury.

Treatment

The majority of people with whiplash are treated with non-surgical methods aimed at pain relief.  Over-the-counter pain medication or prescription pain medication or muscle relaxants may be used to ease discomfort.  You should avoid strenuous activities, lifting, and sports for the time specified by your doctor.  You may where a neck collar to help support the head while your neck heals.

Physical therapy, such as gentle motion or massage, and modalities, such as heat therapy, cold therapy, or a combination of treatments, may be used to ease tension and pain.  Most cases of whiplash heal within several weeks with treatment.

Prevention

To reduce the chance of severe whiplash injury, make sure that the headrest in your car is adjusted to the appropriate height.

Am I At Risk

You may have an increased risk of whiplash if you participate in direct contact sports that could result in high impacts, such as boxing or football.

Complications

Most cases of whiplash are treated without surgery.  However, your doctor will refer you to a surgeon if it appears that this is necessary.

A concussion can result from the sudden movements of a whiplash injury.  Symptoms of a concussion include headache, confusion, difficulty remembering things, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.  You should seek emergency medical care if you suspect that you have a concussion.