Whiplash – Your questions, answered

Whiplash is a common, but unpleasant spinal and ligament injury, often caused as the result of a car accident or collision. Fortunately, whiplash is relatively easy to treat, and with the right care, patients can expect to make a complete recovery. We’ll explore some of the common questions about whiplash, its symptoms, how it’s diagnosed,¬†treatment and recovery.


What exactly is whiplash?

Whiplash is an injury to a person’s upper back or neck. The severity of the injury can vary, with possible damage to the spinal column, discs, ligaments, muscles and soft tissues around the upper back and neck.


What causes whiplash?

The most common cause of whiplash is a traffic collision or car accident, especially if the patient’s car is hit from behind. The sudden acceleration and deceleration causes the head to “whip” back and forth suddenly, potentially injuring the neck and upper back.


Is whiplash life-threatening?

No. Although it can be painful and severely limit movement of the head and neck, almost all patients that receive proper treatment will improve and may recover completely from the injury.


What are the injuries associated with whiplash?

Injuries caused by whiplash include:

  • A herniated disk in the neck – These are the disks between the vertebrae of the spine and they can be torn, crushed or otherwise damaged by the jarring of the head
  • Pinched nerves – Nerves can become pinched as the result of a whiplash injury with or without a herniated disc.
  • Torn muscles and ligaments – The muscles and ligaments that support the neck, shoulders, head and back can be stretched and torn


What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Symptoms caused by whiplash include:

  • Pain in the shoulders, back, neck, arms, head and spine, especially during and after movement
  • Limited movement in the back, neck, arms and head
  • Stiffness and numbness in the arms, shoulders and neck
  • Tenderness and swelling
  • Headaches, fatigue and dizziness
  • Pain in the jaw
  • Weakness in the arms
  • Disturbances to hearing and eyesight

Symptoms normally occur within a day of an incident, but can take up to a week to manifest.


How is whiplash diagnosed?

A diagnosis of whiplash is fairly straightforward, and most doctors will use a combination of the following:

  • Consultation – Finding out about what could have caused the injury
  • Examination – A physical study of the affected area
  • X-ray – An x-ray of the spine and neck
  • MRI – A “Magnetic Resonance Image” of the affected area


How is whiplash treated?

There are various treatments for whiplash, including:

  • Physical therapy – Gentle movement and exercise of the head, back, spine and arms; this helps to strengthen the muscles supporting the weight of the head, neck and spine
  • Heat and ice – Heat and ice can help to manage pain, reduce swelling and promote healing
  • Medication – Pain relief medication can help to significantly reduce a patient’s discomfort
  • Support collars and pillows – Special collars and pillows provide extra support for the weight of the head


What are the most important aspects of whiplash diagnosis and treatment?

If you think you might have whiplash, you should:

  • See your doctor as soon as possible and get a referral to a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. Many health plans do not require referrals for orthopedic specialists.
  • Make sure that your whiplash is properly diagnosed
  • Get an effective treatment plan that should include treatment from a licensed physical therapist
  • Follow the treatment plan, including instructions to exercise and use any support equipment that you’ve been given
  • Track your recovery and let your doctor know if you run into any problems


In Closing

In every case, diagnosis and treatment of whiplash should be made by a medical professional, preferably a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. It is easy to treat whiplash through a combination of physical therapy, support equipment, exercise and medication.  Quick diagnosis, combined with an effective treatment plan will give you the best chance to make the best possible recovery.


Theodore A Evans M.D. and the team at S.F.I.Ortho