A whiplash injury can occur when your head suddenly moves backward and then forward again. It most commonly happens when your car is rear-ended, but it can also happen in other situations, as discussed below.
Whiplash is a type of soft-tissue injury in the neck. They can be minor, and the pain can be over within a few days or weeks without the need for any medical treatment. However, whiplash injuries can also be severe and cause chronic pain that can last years.
As noted above, whiplash is a common injury in vehicle accidents. Whiplash can also occur under other circumstances, as in the following examples.
Theme Park and Carnival Rides
Theme park and carnival rides are often designed to start, stop, and change direction quickly. For most people, this may not be a problem. But these rapid movements can cause some people to experience whiplash symptoms. If a ride is negligently maintained or operated, the risk of injury is higher.
Abuse and Assaults
A person who is hit, punched, or shaken may experience whiplash symptoms afterward. Babies are especially vulnerable to whiplash injuries, and whiplash can be a sign of “shaken baby syndrome.”
Any sport that involves contact and collisions can cause a whiplash injury. Obviously, a sport like boxing, in which you’re literally punched in the head, can cause whiplash. Tackle football, or even colliding with your tennis partner, can also cause whiplash.
Whiplash symptoms may be apparent immediately after an accident, or they can take 24 hours or longer to appear. Common symptoms include:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Headaches, usually at the base of the skull
- Blurred vision
Less common symptoms include:
- Ringing in the ears
- Difficulty sleeping and concentrating
- Memory issues
(Of course, it’s not surprising that a person with these symptoms might be a bit cranky!)
Some of these symptoms can indicate the presence of a more serious injury–not that whiplash can’t be serious. Thus, you shouldn’t assume it’s “just whiplash” and fail to consult your doctor after an accident on the assumption that you don’t need medical care.
Seeing your doctor isn’t just a good idea as far as your health is concerned. It can also provide the evidence of your injury needed for you to get the compensation you deserve.
Women seem to be more vulnerable to whiplash than men are, perhaps because women are less likely than men to develop their neck muscles. Children, and people who are weak or frail, are also more vulnerable.
Consulting a Medical Professional
As noted above, it’s a VERY good idea to see your doctor if you have whiplash or any other symptoms after an accident. It’s even more important to see a doctor if you have symptoms like:
- Pain that spreads from your neck to your shoulders or arms
- Pain when you move your head
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms
During Your Appointment
Your doctor will examine you and check things like how far you’re able to move your neck in various directions. Your doctor should also check if parts of your neck are painful or tender to touch. If your doctor suspects you had a brain injury, such as a concussion, he or she may also perform a neurological examination.
Be prepared to discuss with your doctor when and how the pain started. Keep track of your symptoms as you notice them, and mention them during your medical appointment so that all of your symptoms will be listed in your medical records.
Your goal after your whiplash injury is not only to get better as soon as possible but to assure that your injury is fully and accurately documented so that you can recover any compensation to which you might be entitled.
This is not the time to be “brave” and tell your doctor “it’s not so bad” when you really are feeling pain or experiencing other symptoms. Also, if you don’t share all your symptoms with your doctor and accurately describe your level of pain, your doctor may not realize that you have a more serious injury.
Delaying treatment for a more serious injury could cause you to suffer unnecessarily or could lead to a longer-term disability.
If You’re Being Treated in an Emergency Room
If you’ve been injured in an accident, you may go straight to the emergency room rather than to your regular doctor–especially if it’s after hours or on a weekend. Since the doctor who sees you in the ER won’t be familiar with your medical history, be sure to share information about things like:
- Any existing health conditions you have (such as arthritis)
- Any medications or dietary supplements you’re taking
- Any previous accidents you’ve had, especially if they were recent
A doctor may order tests in order to detect or rule out more serious injuries.
For example, a doctor may order:
- X-rays to detect spinal fractures or dislocations
- CT scans to look for bone or soft tissue injuries
- MRI to look for soft tissue injuries such as damage to the spinal cord or nerve roots
After Your Initial Appointment
If a new symptom appears after your initial examination, or if the pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks, schedule a follow-up visit with your doctor.
Mild whiplash injuries are usually treated with over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, Tylenol, or aspirin. Other treatments are discussed below.
If over-the-counter medications aren’t sufficient to stop the pain, your doctor may prescribe a stronger prescription painkiller.
Muscle relaxants can ease muscle spasms but can also cause drowsiness. Be sure to ask about any side effects of any drugs you’re prescribed and whether it’s safe to drive when using them. Also, make sure to disclose any prescription medications or supplements that you’re taking, in case of dangerous drug interactions.
An injection of lidocaine (Xylocaine) may also be needed to relieve spasms and pain.
Therapies for whiplash include:
- Applying ice to the painful area. A package of frozen peas can be an inexpensive “form-fitting” solution to putting the cold just where you need it. You can refreeze and reuse the peas, but be sure not to eat them after they’ve been defrosted and refrozen. In general, ice is used immediately after an injury to reduce inflammation, whereas heat is used later to relax muscles.
- Heat. After the initial inflammation has passed, you may find that heat relieves your symptoms, especially where muscle spasms are involved. Heat can also be helpful before range-of-motion and stretching exercises. You can try an electric heating pad, but be sure never to use one when you’re sleeping or might fall asleep. You can also try pads that are heated in the microwave and cool down on their own over time, although these usually don’t hold the heat for very long. Some types of “hot water” bottles can be plugged in to heat and then unplugged for use. They contain a fluid that holds heat for hours.
- Exercises. Once your pain has subsided enough, your doctor may recommend that you perform gentle turning and stretching exercises to help your neck get back to normal.
- Ultrasound. Many people are only familiar with ultrasound when used to detect physical conditions, such as seeing how a baby is developing in the womb. However, ultrasound can also be used therapeutically by physical therapists to treat pain. If other therapies aren’t working for you, ask your doctor about this option.
Although the image of the accident victim in a foam collar is something of comedy cliché, cervical collars are no longer routinely recommended for whiplash injuries. According to the Mayo Clinic, a cervical collar should be worn for no longer than three hours at a time (or while sleeping) and only for the first few days after an accident. Long-term use of a cervical collar can cause loss of muscle and actually delay recovery.
Some people with whiplash injury pain that doesn’t respond to conventional medical treatment may wish to explore alternative treatments such as:
- Chiropractic care
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
Most people who have a whiplash injury will recover in two to three months. Some people may have pain for years. In some cases, long-term pain will be due not specifically to a whiplash injury but to some other damage to the joints, disks, or ligaments of the neck.
Some people may think it’s “not worth the hassle” to seek compensation from another driver’s insurance carrier after a relatively minor rear-ender that left them with pain for only a few days. Although whiplash is often considered a “minor” injury, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t entitled to compensation when that injury was caused by someone else’s fault.