Whiplash Injury Symptoms & Treatments

A whiplash injury occurs when a sudden jolt snaps the head back and forth on the delicate axis of your neck. Imagine, arcing a whip—in this analogy, the ligaments and muscles of your neck—backward and then explosively cracking it forward.

The same high-intensity movement associated with lashing a whip occurs during a collision to the soft tissues that support your neck. Even if the collision occurs at a low velocity. 

That’s right: Even a rear-end car collision at 5-10 mph can strain the fibrous ligaments, spongy discs, dense nerves, and muscles of your neck.

And, unlike other traumatic injuries, whiplash injuries can be particularly nasty in that the full effects may not manifest themselves until days, weeks, or even months after your accident.

Think you might have a whiplash injury? Continue reading to discover how these injuries occur and warning signs that it’s time to see a doctor.

What Causes a Whiplash Injury?

When we think of whiplash injuries, we most often associate the precipitating event with auto accidents. However, whiplash injuries can result from any abrupt force that causes the head to snap backward and then forward. Common causes of whiplash injuries include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents: By far the most common cause of whiplash injuries, any rear-end collision can result in neck trauma. Whether the vehicle involved in the collision is a car, truck, boat, or ATV, etc., is less important than the actual injury itself.
  • High-impact sports: Whiplash injuries occur commonly during high-impact sports, such as football, basketball, soccer, wrestling, gymnastics, and martial arts or boxing. On rarer occasions, whiplash injuries can also occur during lower impact activities, such as diving, cycling, or horseback riding.
  • Slips & Falls: During a slip and fall accident, the back of the head may rebound off of the floor, resulting in a whiplash injury.
  • Physical Abuse: Likewise, a violent blow to the head/body or being shaken by the shoulders can strain the muscles and ligaments of the neck.

Essentially, any accident involving a rapid acceleration-deceleration event can result in a whiplash injury. But, what exactly does this entail for the sufferer? Keep reading to find out.

What Types of Neck Injuries are Associated with Whiplash?

Whiplash refers more to the mechanism that causes the injury rather than the injury itself. In reality, a variety of injuries can result from whiplash. These may include:

  • Ligament Sprains & Muscles Strains: When a ligament tears, it is referred to as a sprain, whereas a torn muscle is called a strain. With whiplash injuries, the muscles and ligaments of the neck become hyperextended and then hyper-flexed during an extremely brief period. A matter of mere seconds. This can lead to overstretching of the soft tissues that support the neck and instantaneous injury.
  • Cervical Herniated Discs: Between each vertebra of your spine lies a spongy intervertebral disc that serves to absorb impact. When the impact in question is too much, the fibrous exterior of the disc can tear, releasing its gel-like internal contents into the intervertebral space. This often results in pain and as we can see in the next bullet point, pinched nerves.
  • Pinched Nerves: The material from inside a cervical herniated disc can pinch nerves in its vicinity, resulting in symptoms of neurological pain. Additionally, swollen tissues in the area can also impinge upon adjacent nerves, generating discomfort.
  • Fractures & Dislocations: During a hyperextension-hyperflexion event, the cervical spine (i.e. neck) may suffer a fracture or dislocation. A fracture involves the breaking or splintering of a bone, whereas a dislocation involves the snapping of a ligament that holds two bones together. When a dislocation occurs in the neck, it creates significant joint instability and the probability of further injury.


Whiplash Injury Grading System

Whiplash injuries can vary quite a bit in severity. As such, doctors have developed the following grading system that takes the above injuries into consideration:

    1. Grade 0: No symptoms.
    2. Grade 1: Neck soreness/discomfort.
    3. Grade 2: Neck pain AND evidence of mild to moderate musculoskeletal damage (i.e. ligament sprains & strains, herniated discs, etc.).
    4. Grade 3: Neck pain AND neurological evidence of disruption. This includes evidence of pinched nerves and significant loss of range of motion or muscular weakness in the extremities.
    5. Grade 4:Severe neck pain AND spinal fractures/dislocations.


Common Symptoms of Whiplash Injuries

Whiplash injuries, as you may now suspect, can lead to a host of painful symptoms. In fact, doctors refer to this diverse body of symptoms as whiplash-associated disorders (WAD). You may notice symptoms of WAD immediately after your injury or even days, weeks, or months later.

Consider, for example, that a herniated disc often causes pain only if it impinges upon adjacent nerves. You may not notice pain in the first couple of weeks after your injury. But, all it takes is something to shift slightly out of place for a nerve to become pinched.

Common symptoms of Whiplash-Associated Disorders may include:

  • Neck pain, particularly at the base of your neck, and/or shoulder and arm discomfort
  • Neck stiffness or tenderness when attempting to move the head
  • Muscle spasms in the neck, upper back, or shoulders
  • Headaches, including migraines, or dizziness
  • Arm or hand weakness, numbness, or burning
  • Excessive fatigue or memory and concentration issues
  • Vision difficulties and/or tinnitus

It’s no secret: Whiplash injuries can completely disrupt your life. But, you don’t have to white-knuckle your way through the pain. Our whiplash injury experts at the Injury Care Center will explain our whiplash injury diagnostic process as well as our multi-modal approach to eliminating your pain in the next sections.

Diagnosing Your Whiplash Injury

Not only will your doctor what to know about the events directly preceding your injury, but he or she will also want to assess the severity of your physical impairment. Initially, this will involve a simple examination. Your doctor will measure the degree of motion in your neck, arms, and shoulders and ask you to rate your pain. If evidence of neurological involvement exists, your doctor will assess function in your arms, including hand strength, reflexes, and sensation.

If warranted, your doctor will order several imaging tests to pinpoint the exact injuries associated with your whiplash. These tests may include:

  • X-rays: An x-ray of your cervical spine can reveal any fractures or dislocations that may have occurred during your accident.
  • CT scan: A CT scan uses multiple x-ray images to generate cross-sectional images of your bones and muscles, which can reveal muscle damage if present.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): An MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to generate a visual representation of your spine that includes soft tissues. A powerful tool, an MRI allows your doctor to take a closer look at your muscles, discs, nerves, spinal cord, and more.

After your doctor confirms your diagnosis of WAD, he or she will develop a multidisciplinary treatment plan that best suits your individual injuries. As you will learn in the following sections, the treatments prescribed will vary according to the severity of your injuries.

Treating Low-Grade Whiplash Injuries

Non-serious or mild whiplash injuries may improve with at-home interventions. If you have sustained a mild whiplash injury, your doctor may recommend:

  • Rest: An initial period of rest allows your body to heal safely without the potential for reinjury. Just make sure not to rest for too long – Too much inactivity can actually worsen your pain in the long run.
  • Ice & Heat Therapy: Applying ice to an injury serves to alleviate inflammation, whereas heat application increases blood flow to an area. Blood carries important immune system agents that function to accelerate the healing process.
  • OTC Medications: Over-the-counter medications, like Tylenol or Ibuprophen, can temporarily eliminate any discomfort you may be experiencing.
  • Exercises: To reduce stiffness and increase range of motion, your doctor may recommend certain exercises, including neck rotation and shoulder rolls. Never embark on an exercise program without first consulting your physician. Certain exercises may actually worsen your pain.


Treating Moderate-Grade Whiplash Injuries

If at-home methods just aren’t cutting it, you don’t have to simply grit your teeth and bare it. Interventions, such as medications and targeted therapies, exist that can help you control more severe pain. Common pain management techniques of whiplash-associated pain include:

  • Prescription-Strength Pain Medications: Certain medications, like SSRIs and opioids, can disrupt pain signals to the brain, resulting in relief. Bear in mind that many of these medications are considered habit-forming. As such, they should only be administered exactly as prescribed by your physician.
  • Muscle Relaxants: These medications dampen the activity of skeletal muscles, which reduces stiffness and spasms. Like opioids, these medications are only intended for short-term use.
  • Epidural Steroid Injections (ESI): During an ESI, your doctor injects a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, known as a steroid, into your epidural space. (The epidural space is the area that lies between your spinal cord and the vertebral canal.) Doing so delivers medication directly to the site of the injured nerve root. However, effects are temporary and multiple shots are required.
  • Facet Joint Injections: A facet joint connects the posterior side of two vertebrae. During a facet block, your doctor injects a pain medication, such as a steroid, directly into the facet joint to alleviate pain.
  • Trigger Point Injections: Typically reserved for more severe cases of whiplash, a trigger point injection involves administering an anesthetic directly into the affected muscle. The anesthetic not only numbs the muscle but also interrupts pain signals traveling from the muscle to the brain.


Therapies for Moderate-Grade Whiplash Injuries

But, medications aren’t the only techniques that prove effective for treating whiplash injuries. Additionally, a number of therapeutic interventions are shown to alleviate whiplash pain. Of these, some of the most common techniques include:

  • Physical Therapy: We’ve already mentioned that your physician may request that you perform certain exercises to minimize your pain and maximize your recovery. But, when simple at-home techniques don’t work, physicians call in the big guns: physical therapists. Physical therapists are doctors who specifically work with injured patients to improve their mobility, flexibility, and strength while reducing pain. Instead of a few generic exercises, a physical therapist will devise a program that specifically targets your unique injuries.
  • Chiropractic Care: A chiropractor uses a variety of techniques, including spinal adjustments, instrument-assisted manipulations, and TENS, to realign and relax the spine. Additionally, your chiropractor may recommend ergonomic interventions to alleviate your pain.
  • Occupational Therapy: Severe whiplash injuries that involve fractures and dislocations and may require relearning some of the activities of daily living. This is exactly where consulting an OT becomes handy. OTs specialize in restoring a patient’s ability to execute everyday tasks, such as dressing or performing transfers.
  • Massage Therapy: Sore muscles often respond well to massage techniques such as myofascial release, cranial-sacral work, and trigger point massage. In particular, patients who pursue massage therapy as an early intervention for chronic whiplash pain report better outcomes than those who do not.

Rarely, whiplash injuries may occur with other problems that necessitate surgery. For example, if you sustain a cervical herniated disc that doesn’t respond to conservative interventions, then your doctor may recommend surgery. Likewise, fractures and dislocations may require minimally invasive surgical techniques to restabilize the spine. Your doctor will let you know if you are a candidate for surgery.

Conquering Whiplash Pain

If you’ve been suffering from chronic neck pain as the result of a whiplash injury, your relief journey begins today. At the Injury Care Center (ICC), our multidisciplinary team consists of pain management specialists, physical, occupational, and massage therapists, and chiropractors.

Research shows that a multimodal approach to pain management is the best approach when it comes to addressing whiplash. At ICC, we will work collaboratively to accurately diagnose the source of your pain and develop a cross-specialty plan of intervention to eliminate your whiplash pain. Don’t white knuckle your way to recovery – Contact one of our dedicated patient advocates today!