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Whiplash

Whiplash type injuries can affect any part of the spine as they are basically the equivalent of a strain/sprain injury in other parts of the body. This information page will concentrate on whiplash of the neck.

Whiplash is considered to be an injury to the soft tissue – ie non-bone structures – although this is not always the case. The most common cause of injury is sudden acceleration followed by deceleration as in a car accident. Assuming a seatbelt is worn, the trunk remains stationary. In a rear-end collision, the head and neck are thrown backwards followed by forwards. In a front-end collision, the head and neck are thrown forwards followed by backwards.

Structures that can be injured and cause pain are:

  • ligaments
  • muscles
  • discs
  • joints

The onset of symptoms following a whiplash vary from immediately to up to 72 hours after the accident and can last up to a couple of years after (in severe cases). There is a wide range of symptoms, depending on the extent of the damage. The most common symptoms are:

  • neck pain
  • referred pain into the shoulder or arm
  • headaches
  • neck stiffness with subsequent loss of movement
  • muscle spasm
  • pins and needles in the arm/hand

Management

If ambulance crew are present at the scene of the accident, they will check you over. Otherwise it is advisable to go to Casualty or at least your GP to be checked. An x-ray may be taken to rule out any injuries to the bones in the neck.

You may be given a collar to wear. This will allow the muscles to rest and therefore reduce the spasm and pain. However, it is not advisable to wear these for more than a couple of days as the muscles can become weak, and the neck more stiff. Even while wearing a collar, it is sensible to take it off at regular intervals to allow the neck to move gently.

NB: you are not covered by your insurance company if you have an accident whilst wearing a collar. DO NOT DRIVE WITH A COLLAR ON.

Early access to a physiotherapist is often the key to a quick recovery. You will be advised that early, gentle movement is usually the best form of treatment. A variety of techniques can be employed to reduce the pain and muscle spasm, restore the movement and aid healing and repair.

You will be given advice on how to look after your neck and the importance of adopting a good posture. General neck care advice can be found on the Posture, Back Care and Neck Care information page. Advice on when and to what extent normal activities can be resumed will be discussed. You will probably be given some very gentle exercises to improve the posture and movement. The application of heat or ice to the affected area may give some relief. The use of painkillers or anti-inflammatories may also help, but consult a doctor or pharmacist before taking anything.

Unfortunately, very little can be done to prevent a whiplash injury. The use of a seatbelt and headrest are paramount, however, please note that a headrest is only effective if the head is in contact with it at the time of impact.

The main points to remember following a whiplash injury are:

  • seek medical advice
  • early access to physiotherapy
  • early gentle movement
  • avoid aggravating postures and activities
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