What causes Whiplash and how to treat this injury

Sudden head movement can often leave you with unbearable pain in your neck. This is whiplash. Read on to know more about it.
A woman massaging her neck.
A woman massaging her neck, a result of whiplash. Image courtesy: Pexels
Anjuri Nayar Singh Updated: 9 Jun 2024, 17:29 pm IST
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A sudden back-and-forth head movement can leave you with unbearable pain in your neck, swelling and even bruising. That’s what whiplash is all about. While the day of the injury makes you feel much pain, it can only grow worse over the next few days. Hence, it is very important to get diagnosed and treated on time. In most cases, you are sure to feel better in a week. However, at times it can take longer as well, spreading to three months. Getting a whiplash during car accidents is the most common. You may experience pain in your neck and shoulders and it may also spread to your back. Read on to know more about this pain, and how you can rectify it quickly.

What is whiplash?

A whiplash is when your tendons, muscles or other soft tissues in your neck area are injured. This happens when you move your head suddenly and vigorously and then move it back as well, very quickly. In this type of injury, your neck gets stretched beyond what is comfortable, and you end up overstraining your muscles and tissues. Car accidents or other sports injuries can often lead to whiplash.

While you may feel pain instantly, in many cases, there might be no symptoms in the initial days, and the pain may surface after some time. This study, published in Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, states that an X-ray may not be able to determine a whiplash in its initial stages. This is what makes it difficult to detect and treat. However, early mobilization can help you feel better soon.

Causes of Whiplash

The rapid movement of your neck can lead to stretch and tear in your neck muscles, tendons and tissues. Many kinds of injuries can lead to whiplash, car accidents being the most common. The speed of the car doesn’t matter as much as if you had a seat belt on or not. Besides these, if you are suddenly shaken or struck, that can also lead to a whiplash. Football and other forms of martial arts, snowboarding, boxing or even gymnastics can lead to sudden movements as well. Besides this riding on horseback can also cause a whiplash. Ageing can also increase the risk of getting whiplash injuries as muscles often lose their strength and flexibility with age, increasing the chances of injury.

A woman holding her neck
A mild case of whiplash can be rectified on its own by home remedies. Image courtesy: Pexels

Symptoms of whiplash

There are times when whiplash may lead to no symptoms, and you even know that you are injured for the initial few days. However, at times, whiplash can lead to extremely severe symptoms.

  • Pain in the following six hours
  • Painful and stiff neck
  • Difficulty in moving your neck
  • Dizziness, vertigo or a feeling of your ears ringing
  • Headache
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Blurred vision
  • Not being able to concentrate

When do you need to go to the doctor for whiplash?

Most whiplash cases can be solved by medication available at pharmacies, or other home remedies such as icing the area. However, if you have recently been in a car accident, it is advisable to get yourself checked well. Besides this, if pain in your neck refuses to subside, and comes back again and again, then going to the doctor is a must. Feeling weak, or experiencing pain and even numbness in your neck, arms or legs is alarming, and should not be ignored. Irregular bladder and bowel movements must be an indicator as well.

Diagnosis of whiplash

Diagnosing a case of whiplash, and subsequently treating it can be frustrating for the patient and difficult for the doctor, as many times the symptoms don’t appear, and the radiographic pictures might not be accurate as well, states this study, published in Spine. It also states that factors such as old age, pre-existing neck pain as well as initial symptoms can make it tough to diagnose.

You must give the doctor ample information about the incident that you think led to your pain. The doctor will also examine the area where you feel pain and the kind of pain, whether you have spasms or dull pain. An X-ray, CT Scan and MRI scan may also be conducted to determine inflammation and injury.

Treatment and home remedies for whiplash

The doctor will prescribe you painkillers that will instantly help numb the pain. Besides this, he might also give you muscle relaxants. However, other home remedies can help you as well.

Cold and heat treatment can work well in treating whiplash. A cold compress should be applied for 15 minutes, which must be followed by heat compression, for another 15 minutes. However, heat must only be applied once the swelling has vanished.

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A woman holding the back of her head.
Whiplash can lead to headache and shoulder pain. Image courtesy: Pexels

Rest is your worst enemy while treating a whiplash. Treatments that include exercising can help treat whiplash. A study, published in Pain Research and Management, suggests that immobilising the area, and putting on a soft collar, can be detrimental to treating whiplash. Active mobilisation of the area can help you feel better soon. However, more research is needed in this area.

Summary

Whiplash is a neck injury that is caused by the sudden back-and-forth movement of your head. It can lead to neck pain, pain in shoulders as well as back pain. The symptoms may be severe in a few cases and might be absent as well in others. However, severe pain should not be ignored. Home treatments for whiplash include hot and cold compressions, as well as over-the-counter medications.

FAQs

What to not do while recovering from a whiplash

While it helps to move the affected area, some activities can hinder your recovery. Try not to lift anything heavy, you can also refrain from swimming, tennis or other contact sports. Driving a car must be avoided as well.

Can whiplash heal on its own?

Yes, if you have a mild case of whiplash, it might heal on its own with the help of home remedies or other-the-counter medications. However, ignoring severe pain can lead to other complications. Very young or very old people are most at risk, and hence, must be shown to a doctor.

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About the Author

Anjuri Nayar Singh has over 12 years of experience in writing for various topics including lifestyle, films, television and OTT. She also writes on art and culture, education and human interest stories. ...Read More

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