Whiplash

(Cervical Sprain and Neck Muscle Strain)

Definition

Whiplash is a soft tissue neck injury that may include:

  • Spraining the neck ligaments
  • Straining the neck muscles
  • Injury to cervical discs
  • Nerve injury

Process Leading to Whiplash

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Causes

Whiplash can by caused by any sudden, violent, backward jerk of the head or neck.

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Contact sports
  • Falls
  • Violence

Symptoms

Problems may start right away or in the days after the injury.

A person may have:

  • Stiff neck
  • Neck pain
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Shoulder pain and stiffness
  • Poor range of neck motion
  • Muscle spasms
  • Headache
  • Pain, numbness, or tingling extending down an arm
  • Fatigue

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the neck.

Most whiplash injuries do not show up on imaging tests. Neck images may be taken to make sure that no other injuries have occurred. Images may be taken with:

An electromyogram may also be done to test for nerve damage.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to ease pain. Choices are:

  • Supportive care, such as ice and heat therapy
  • Over the counter and prescription pain relievers
  • Physical therapy to strengthen muscles and improve range of motion

Prevention

There are no current guidelines to prevent this problem. Whiplash is often due to accidents.

RESOURCES:

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
http://familydoctor.org
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
http://orthoinfo.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Orthopaedic Association
http://www.coa-aco.org

References:

Cervical spine injury. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cervical-spine-injury. Accessed October 9, 2020.
Ludvigsson ML, Peterson G, et al. One and two year follow-up of a randomized trial of neck-specific exercise with or without a behavioral approach compared with prescription of physical activity in chronic whiplash disorder. J Rehabil Med. 2016;48(1):56-64.
Ludvigsson ML, Peterson G, et al. The effect of neck-specific exercise with, or without a behavioral approach, on pain, disability, and self-efficacy in chronic whiplash-associated disorders: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Clin J Pain. 2015;31(4)294-303.
Neck sprain. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/neck-pain. Accessed October 9, 2020.
Ritchie C, Hollingworth, et al. Medicine use during acute and chronic postinjury periods in whiplash-injured individuals. Pain. 2019;160(4):844-851.
Whiplash information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Whiplash-Information-Page. Accessed October 9, 2020.
Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT, GCS
Last Updated: 5/14/2021

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