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What To Do (And Not Do) When You Suffer A Whiplash Injury

We have all suffered from neck strain at one point or another in our lives. However, if you ask the average person whether or not they have ever experienced whiplash, you might not receive an affirmative response. But neck strain is commonly referred to as whiplash, with the two descriptors often used interchangeably. You may associate whiplash with car accidents, but the injury can actually be caused by a number of scenarios.

Whiplash is, indeed, most commonly caused by rear-end car crashes. But physical abuse, sports accidents, slip and falls, and general trauma can also result in a whiplash injury. Any time one’s neck bends forcibly backward and then forward (or vice versa), a whiplash injury can occur. The term ‘whiplash’ is meant to describe the back-and-forth motion endured by the neck, similar to cracking a whip.

Johns Hopkins medicine refers to whiplash as a “poorly understood” condition. It can be easy to ignore important aspects of treatment, which can actually be the key to long-term recovery. Let’s take a look at how whiplash is defined and diagnosed, as well as the symptoms, causes, and treatment options available for those experiencing pain and looking to recover as soon as possible.

Some of the questions we’ll examine:

  • What is whiplash?
  • What causes whiplash?
  • How should you treat whiplash?
  • What are the symptoms of whiplash?
  • How is whiplash diagnosed?

Many questions can follow a whiplash or neck strain injury, but we have everything you need to know covered below. 

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is an injury to the neck. It is caused when the neck forcibly bends forward and then backward.

How Common is Whiplash?

The National Institute of Health has outlined the following statistics regarding whiplash:

  • The worldwide annual incidence of symptomatic whiplash injuries varies between 16 and 200 per 100,000.
  • The incidence of whiplash injury varies greatly between different parts of the world. Rates as high as 70 per 100,000 inhabitants in Quebec, Canada, 106 per 100,000 in Australia, and 188-325 per 100,000 inhabitants in the Netherlands.
  • 20%–40% of whiplash patients tend to develop chronic symptoms.

It is estimated that more than 3 million cases of whiplash occur each year in the U.S.

Which Areas of The Body Are Most At-Risk For Whiplash?

Whiplash can impact multiple areas within the neck, including:

The Following May Also Cause Sprains:

  • Muscles: Neck muscles hold the larynx, hyoid bone, and thyroid cartilage in a triangle along either side.
  • Nerves: The first three cervical nerves (C1, C2, and C3) help control the head and neck, including movements forward, backward, and to the side.
  • Discs: The body’s cervical discs stabilize the neck and allow it to rotate from side-to-side, as well as bend forward and backward.
  • Tendons: Neck tendons are bands comprised of fibrous tissue connecting muscle to bone.
  • Ligaments: A short band of tough, flexible fibrous connective tissue which connects two bones or cartilages or holds together a joint.

How Does Whiplash Occur?

When the neck is forcefully thrown forward and then quickly snaps backward, the motion causes an injury known as whiplash. The violent motion can injure bones in the spine, disks between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and other tissues of the neck

The following may also cause whiplash:

  • Car accidents (typically rear-end collisions)
  • Sports accidents (typically contact sports such as football or hockey)
  • A forcible blow to the head
  • Slip and falls/trip and falls
  • Horseback riding
  • Skiing accidents
  • Cycling accidents
  • Physical abuse (e.g. being shaken)

What Are Common Symptoms or Signs of Whiplash?

Symptoms of whiplash typically appear within 24 hours after the initial injury. In some cases, symptoms can take several days to appear. Whiplash symptoms can last for several weeks, depending on the severity of the injury. Common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • Neck pain
  • Stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Pain at the base of the skull
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Shoulder pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the hand
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Numbness in either the arm or hand
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Problems concentrating

The symptoms of whiplash may manifest similarly to other medical conditions. After experiencing a whiplash injury – whether mild or severe – it’s important that you visit your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

Diagnosing Whiplash

Visiting your doctor immediately after a whiplash injury incident is imperative. She or he will likely ask you a few preliminary questions, such as:

  • What caused the injury?
  • When did the injury occur?
  • Where are you experiencing pain?
  • How would you describe the pain (dull, shooting, aching, etc.)?

Your doctor will likely proceed with a physical examination, checking your neck’s movement and reflexes. Imaging of your neck and surrounding areas will likely be required. Whiplash is most commonly diagnosed through medical diagnostics tests such as:

  • X-RAY: X-ray is the most frequently used medical imaging technique. X-rays use ionizing radiation to produce pictures of inside the body. Electromagnetic energy beams produce images of organs, bones, and internal tissues.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Ultra-detailed magnetic scans of the body produce two and three-dimensional images. Large magnets and a computer are used to produce these detailed images of organs and soft tissue structures within your body.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: CT combines multiple X-ray images to produce a two-dimensional cross-section view with up to 100 time more clarity than a standard X-ray. A CT scan can produce detailed images of any part of your body, including bones, organs, muscles, and even fat.

Expert MRI offers both high-field strength MRI and Stand-Up MRI machines at our various locations throughout Southern California. We also provide X-ray and CT testing protocols for whiplash injuries. Ask your physician what the best type of diagnostics test is for your specific whiplash injury and symptoms.

Treatment for Whiplash

Treatment for whiplash can vary depending on the age of the patient, the extent or severity of the injury, the patient’s medical history, tolerance for various procedures, and more.

Your recommended recovery process might involve any of the following:

  • Ice applications for the first 24 hours
  • Slow, gentle movement after 24 hours
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Electronic nerve stimulation or nerve blocks
  • Cervical (neck) collar (often recommended not to be worn more than three hours at a time)
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen)
  • Muscle relaxing medicines
  • Pain medicines
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Physical therapy
  • Osteopathic manipulation

What is Whiplash-Associated Disorder (WAD)?

The National Institute of Health identifies whiplash-associated disorder (WAD) as the term given for the collection of symptoms affecting the neck, which are triggered by an accident that involves an acceleration–deceleration mechanism.

Based on the severity of signs and symptoms, the Quebec Task Force classifies patients with whiplash as follows:

  • Grade 0: No complaints about the neck. No physical sign(s).
  • Grade I: Neck complaint of pain, stiffness or tenderness only. No physical sign(s).
  • Grade II: Neck complaint AND musculoskeletal sign(s). Musculoskeletal signs include decreased range of motion and point tenderness.
  • Grade III: Neck complaint AND neurological sign(s). Neurological signs include decreased range of motion and point tenderness.
  • Grade IV: Neck complaint AND fracture or dislocation.

How Long Does Whiplash or Neck Strain Take to Heal?

The majority of whiplash injury victims recover within a few weeks to a few months, but persistent pain for several months or longer can be reported. If whiplash symptoms have not improved within the estimated time frame established by your healthcare provider during the initial examination, contact him or her as soon as possible. Additionally, if symptoms worsen or new issues appear, inform your physician immediately.

What NOT To Do After Experiencing a Whiplash Injury

When it comes to a serious injury such as whiplash, ensuring that the healing process is actively progressing is one of the most important things you can do to help improve recovery time. During your recovery, there are a few activities you should avoid:

  • Avoid Sudden Movement: Easy does it following a whiplash injury. Rest and recovery time with limited movement is imperative. Whiplash is not an injury you should ever try to “shake off.” Failing to rest the neck, or adding more pressure, can not only prolong the injury but also increase severity.
  • Avoid Overconsumption of Painkillers or Muscle Relaxants: Painkillers and muscle relaxants are often prescribed after a whiplash injury. These medications are commonly abused, however, and should always be taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen should also be taken as directed, as overconsumption can lead to serious side effects such as ulcers or renal failure. It’s also important to remember that overmedicating with these medications can dull severe pain to the point that the injury is masked. Over-extending one’s physical activity in such a state can further aggravate the injury.
  • Avoid Risky Behavior After Recovery: After sustaining an initial whiplash injury, you may be at a higher risk for re-injury if proper precautions are not taken. This can be particularly true for athletes or active individuals who exercise vigorously and push their bodies to the limit.

How to Avoid Re-Injury After Whiplash

  • Drive safely and defensively at all times
  • Maintain your physician’s plan of action
  • Avoid contact sports
  • Wear non-slip shoes
  • Avoid sleeping on your stomach
  • Continue any physical therapy as recommended

A whiplash injury can be a painful and inconvenient experience that can leave you recovering for an extended period of time. Accessing the best information and resources for an accurate diagnosis through Expert MRI’s protocols – X-ray, CT, high-field strength MRI, Stand-Up MRI – will help in the recovery process.

Contact us today online or by phone at 877-MRI-8888. We have 18 locations throughout Southern California, ensuring you have easy and convenient access to MRI, CT, X-ray, ultrasound, DTI, and post-COVID-19 testing services.