Whiplash is a very real and potentially debilitating condition. It results from sudden and forceful flexion and extension of the neck. The flexion-extension motion is similar to the movement you make when you nod your head up and down. However, whiplash results from a movement that is violent and involuntary, usually resulting from a blow or impact.

When another vehicle strikes yours in a rear-end collision, it can cause your head to jerk back and forth. Therefore, a motor vehicle accident is one of the most common causes of whiplash, though it is by no means the only possible cause.

Why can whiplash be difficult to diagnose?

Seeing a doctor to check for serious injury is always a good idea after a car accident. Your doctor may perform imaging studies, such as X-ray, MRI or CT scans to evaluate for acute injuries such as broken bones, sprains, etc. However, because the damage from whiplash occurs in structures too small for these images to show properly, imaging studies may not be effective diagnostics for whiplash.

Your doctor usually diagnoses whiplash on the basis of your subjective report of symptoms. In addition to pain and stiffness in your neck, symptoms of whiplash can include the following:

  • Headache
  • Muscle spasms
  • Decreased neck range of motion
  • Fatigue
  • Neurological symptoms (shooting pain, memory disturbances, anxiety)

Some of these symptoms can extend beyond the neck to affect the arms and shoulders as well. You should be aware, however, that it can be a matter of hours, and sometimes several days, before the symptoms show up. You may feel fine initially after the crash, only to start experiencing symptoms when you wake up the next morning.

What are the treatments for whiplash?

Mild cases of whiplash may get better on their own. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few months. More severe cases may require intervention in the form of heat applied to the painful area to loosen tight muscles, medications (e.g., muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories) and/or physical therapy. After a severe case of whiplash, pain and symptoms may linger for a year or more.