A whiplash injury occurs when your head is suddenly jolted backwards and forwards (or forwards then backwards) in a whip-like movement, or is suddenly forcibly rotated or side flexed. A common cause is being involved in a road traffic accident. Other causes include sports injuries, falls or being shaken/assaulted.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF WHIPLASH?
These are variable and depend on the force, direction of force, the persons age and any underlying conditions. Commonly the following are reported:
Pain and stiffness in the neck. It may take several hours after the accident for symptoms to appear. The pain and stiffness often become worse on the day after the accident.
Turning or bending the neck may be difficult.
You may also feel pain or stiffness in the shoulders or down the arms.
There may be pain and stiffness in the upper and lower part of the back.
Headache is a common symptom.
Dizziness, blurred vision, pain in the jaw or pain on swallowing, unusual sensations of the facial skin may occur for a short while, but soon go. Tell a doctor if any of these persist. Some people feel tired and irritable for a few days and find it difficult to concentrate.
HOW IS WHIPLASH DIAGNOSED?
Your doctor or physiotherapist will usually be able to diagnose a whiplash injury from the description of the way the accident occurred, the typical symptoms, and by examining you. An examination of your neck and arms can check that there are no signs of damage to the vertebrae or spinal nerves or spinal cord. If these are suspected then further tests may be recommended.
Maintaining a comfortable range of movement is important but a few days of rest after the injury is also very important. Some patients gain a lot of relief from using ice packs in the first 48 hours.
OTHER ADVICE INCLUDES:
Ensuring good posture. Sit upright and check that your sitting position at work or at the computer is good.
A firm supporting pillow seems to help some people when sleeping.
A doctor will often prescribe medication and give some early advice, including simple exercises. If symptoms do not begin to settle over the following few days then physiotherapy may be appropriate to help with pain relief and for advice on specific neck exercises. Various treatments may be used by a physiotherapist, these include heat, soft tissue manipulation, acupuncture, traction etc.
YOU SHOULD GO BACK TO SEE A DOCTOR IF:
The pain becomes worse or the pain persists beyond 4-6 weeks
Other symptoms develop such as loss of feeling (numbness), weakness, or persistent pins and needles in part of an arm or hand. These may indicate irritation to or pressure on a nerve emerging from the spinal cord.
WHAT IS THE OUTLOOK (PROGNOSIS) AFTER WHIPLASH?
This will depend on the severity of the injury, but the outlook is good in most cases. Symptoms often begin to improve after a few days. Most people make a full recovery within a few weeks. However, in a small number of cases, some symptoms persist long-term.