What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a type of injury that affects the neck and spine. This injury occurs when a person is in a car accident or suffers another traumatic injury. Contact sports like football can cause whiplash. Additionally, physical assault and abuse can also result in whiplash injuries in anyone, but may be seen more in children who are abused. However, car accidents are by far and away the most common culprit of whiplash.

When a person suffers from whiplash, their neck has been “whipped” or snapped back and forth rapidly like the cracking of a whip. Whiplash can also be referred to as a neck sprain or as neck strain. The injuries that whiplash cause can vary and may include damage to the intervertebral joints or disc herniation.

Intervetebral joint damage means that the connective tissues between the discs of the spine, nerves, muscles, can get strained or torn from the jerking motion of an accident or other injury. A herniated disc on the other hand, means that one of the discs between the vertebrae that cushion the bones and prevent friction and excessive movement has moved out of place.

What are the Symptoms of Whiplash?

Pain in the neck is one of the most common signs or symptoms of whiplash. This pain may get worse when a person tries to move their neck. Whiplash can also cause a person to experience stiffness in their neck which may dramatically reduce their range of motion.

Along with neck pain, whiplash can also cause pain, tingling, or numbness in the arms, shoulders, and neck area and can also cause headaches that start at the base of the skull. Fatigue, dizziness, blurred vision, memory and concentration issues, and tinnitus (ringing ears) can also occur but are not as common.

Whiplash Causes

Whiplash is caused when a sudden force makes the neck bend beyond its normal range. This causes the bones of the spine, the disks between them, or the ligaments, muscles, nerves and other tissues around them, to become injured.

The most common way people develop whiplash is during car accidents. Even during relatively minor car accidents, where the colliding cars have been traveling at relatively low speeds, whiplash can easily occur. It can happen both with and without the use of a seat belt, but wearing a seat belt during an accident will minimize the risk of other injuries, particularly head trauma.

Sometimes whiplash can occur as a result of physical assault. Punches or hits to the face may cause it, as can being vigorously shaken. Babies who are shaken may also sustain whiplash.

Finally, whiplash also occurs as a result of contact sports. Collisions or tackles, which regularly occur during football, soccer and ice hockey, can sometimes lead to whiplash if a lot of force has been used.

How is Whiplash Treated?

Rest and over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medications are generally the first line of treatment for whiplash. This allows the neck time to heal itself and will help with the pain that the condition causes in the meantime. Alternating heat and ice treatments can also help as well as gentle stretching and physical therapy.

If pain or stiffness is severe, a doctor may prescribe medications such as pain relievers or muscle relaxants. Traction may also be useful in treating whiplash including with foam collars or other brace devices.

Whiplash Prevention

To minimize the risk of developing whiplash in the event of a car accident, it is vital to position the car seat and head restraint appropriately so that they can give substantial support to the neck and head.

Firstly, a car seat should be inclined to a 20 degree angle or less in order that the user remains in the seat during a collision. Secondly, the head restraint should be high enough that the top of it is parallel or slightly higher than the top of the head. This will help to prevent the neck from bending too far backwards in the event of a collision.

Lastly, the head restraint should be at the most 5cm away from the back of the head. The closer the head restraint is to the head, the less distance there is for the travel in the event of a collision, which will reduce the risk of whiplash injuries.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 09, 2017