What Is Whiplash?

If you’ve recently been in a car accident or other traumatic incident, you may be have experienced a whiplash injury. When the head is thrown backwards and forwards in a violent manner, it can injury the neck and spine. Subsequent pain may radiate all the way through the upper back and shoulders. Here’s what you should know about this condition.

Whiplash refers to an injury to the cervical, or neck, region of the spine. The cervical region of the spine is made up of seven backbones, or vertebrae. In whiplash, the neck is thrown to and fro by great forces. These cause it to go well beyond its normal range of motion.

During a whiplash injury, the lower part of the cervical spine bends backwards, while the upper part of the cervical spine bends forward. When this happens, injuries can occur that may affect:

  • Vertebrae
  • Muscles
  • Ligaments
  • Discs
  • Joints
  • Nerves
  • Other soft tissues

Another name for this conditions is neck strain.

Whiplash symptoms

If you suffer from an injury in the cervical spine, it’s important to know that sometimes your symptoms come on gradually. Many people after a car accident will experience pain immediately. For some, though, those symptoms may take hours or even days to appear. That’s why it’s crucial you talk to a doctor immediately following a traumatic incident. They can check for injuries and help you avoid worsening symptoms.

Symptoms of whiplash may include:

  • Pain in the cervical region of the spine (or neck pain)
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Tightness or spasm in muscles of the neck
  • Headaches
  • Shoulder pain and stiffness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Arm pain and weakness
  • Ringing of the ears (tinnitus)
  • Visual disturbances
  • Memory loss
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue

What we know about this condition

Whiplash is often an enigma. The severity of symptoms do not always correspond to the force of initial accident. Sometimes symptoms can appear after a lengthy period of time.

It’s also complicated more by its role in insurance and workers compensation claims. Some feel that our poor understanding of the condition allows people to fleece the system for financial gain. Since pain is so subjective, the veracity of the pain being felt and reported by victims oftentimes comes into question.

As a result of insurance and legal issues, the economic burden of this condition and its associated disorders have skyrocketed over the years. These costs include:

  • Medical care
  • Sick leave
  • Disability
  • Lost productivity
  • Litigation

Nonetheless, despite its stigma, whiplash is a legitimate condition with legitimate symptoms. Many people are curious about how long this condition lasts, as well. We talk about this subject in more detail here.

Causes Of Whiplash

A sudden, forceful jolt can cause the cervical spine to move outside of its normal range of motion. The most common cause of this condition is motor vehicle collisions in which one automobile rear-ends another. The rear impact wrenches the neck forward and then backward.

Blows to the head from falling objects, or in a sport like boxing, can also lead to whiplash. Other causes include sudden changes in directions in activities like:

  • Riding roller coasters
  • Falling off a horse
  • Falling off a motorcycle or bicycle
  • Slips or falls
  • Enduring physical assault or abuse
  • Playing contact sports such as football, basketball, rugby, and hockey

Whiplash | Causes, Symptoms, And Treatments That Work | PainDoctor.com


A doctor diagnoses this condition with imaging studies, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). They’ll also ask questions about the initial incident, and take a full health history to get an idea of your own risk factors and symptoms.

Soft tissues of the neck such as ligaments, discs, tendons, nerves, and muscles are not visible using conventional X-ray techniques.

Treatments For Whiplash

In the majority of cases, symptoms are short-lived and resolve quickly. For some, it is complicated by chronic pain in the cervical spine that leads to months or years of pain. To avoid chronic pain from a whiplash injury, it’s important that you talk to a doctor as soon as possible after an incident. They’ll be able to diagnose the severity of your injuries and suggest treatments to avoid future worsening of symptoms.

Treatments do vary, depending on the severity of your injury. No singular treatment has been scientifically proven to be superior. Rest and immobilization with a cervical collar were once routinely recommended for this condition. Today, the current trend is toward early movement with gentle physical therapy exercises as opposed to immobilization, which can prolong recovery.

At the outset of injury, pain control is of key importance. Your doctor may recommend icing the area for the initial 24 hours after your injury. After that, ice can be replaced by heat. Both should be applied no greater than 20 minutes.

Pain medications

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil (ibuprofen), Bayer (aspirin), or Aleve (naproxen sodium) can help with mild and some moderate neck pain. If you’re experiencing muscle spasms, muscle relaxants can also help.

If you are using medication to manage pain, you should so only as long as recommended by your doctor. Medications should be used for as short a term as possible due to the increased risk of negative side effects with prolonged use.

Physical therapy

To fully heal from an injury, you have to work at restoring your full range of motion in the neck.

You’ll first work in a clinic with an occupational or physical therapist. They’ll guide you through a therapy plan that restores your range of motion and strength. From there, they’ll often give you at-home exercises you can do as well to encourage a faster recovery.

It is paramount that you re-establish your range of motion soon after an injury to decrease the chances of chronic neck pain and disability.

Complementary treatments

You should work closely with your doctor if you’re experiencing more serious symptoms. If medication, rest, and a physical therapy program don’t help, they may recommend complementary treatments. These can help relieve pain and other symptoms, but do not typically fix any underlying damage. That being said, they are an incredibly useful tool in a comprehensive pain management approach.

These treatments include:

Acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine and utilizes thin needles placed at strategic points on the body. There are a multitude of massage techniques, but acupressure may be the best for neck pain as a result of whiplash.

Cervical spinal manipulation or mobilization are two general approaches used by chiropractors for neck pain. Cervical spinal manipulation is the traditional chiropractic technique, while cervical spinal mobilization is a gentler, less forceful technique.

Electronic nerve stimulation utilizes a gentle electric current, which can help reduce neck pain.

Interventional treatments for severe cases 

Unfortunately, this condition can lead to chronic neck pain. If this occurs, there are interventional treatments that can help.

Neck injections with steroids or anesthetics may be helpful. You can learn more about those steroid injections here.

Another option is radiofrequency ablation. This technique utilizes radio waves to generate heat to destroy nerves that are sending pain signals to the brain. The following video shows you what you can expect during a radiofrequency ablation procedure.

If chronic headaches occur after an injury, Botulinum (botulinum toxin A) injections can also be helpful.


Whiplash is a very common condition. It happens most often when a person’s neck is whipped back and forth suddenly and violently. This typically occurs during:

  • Rear-end car collisions
  • Contact in sports
  • Slips or falls
  • Physical abuse or assault

Your symptoms may manifest over the course of hours or several days. Pain is usually temporary and treatment is conservative. For those who suffer from chronic neck pain as a result, invasive treatments such as steroid injections or radiofrequency ablation may provide some relief.

If you’re suffering from pain or immobility from a previous injury, there is help. You can find a pain specialist in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.

Find Your Pain Doctor


  1. Eichenberger U, Greher M, Kapral S, et al. Sonographic visualization and ultrasound-guided block of the third occipital nerve: prospective for a new method to diagnose C2-C3 zygapophysial joint pain. 2006;104(2):303-308.
  2. Tominaga Y, Ndu AB, Coe MP, et al. Neck ligament strength is decreased following whiplash trauma. BMC musculoskeletal disorders. 2006;7:103.
  3. Becker WJ. Cervicogenic headache: evidence that the neck is a pain generator. 2010;50(4):699-705.
  4. Smith AD, Jull G, Schneider G, Frizzell B, Hooper RA, Sterling M. Cervical Radiofrequency Neurotomy Reduces Central Hyperexcitability and Improves Neck Movement in Individuals with Chronic Whiplash. Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.). Oct18 2013.
  5. Smith AD, Jull G, Schneider G, Frizzell B, Hooper RA, Sterling M. A comparison of physical and psychological features of responders and non-responders to cervical facet blocks in chronic whiplash. BMC musculoskeletal disorders. 2013;14(1):313.
  6. Teasell RW, McClure JA, Walton D, et al. A research synthesis of therapeutic interventions for whiplash-associated disorder (WAD): part 5 – surgical and injection-based interventions for chronic WAD. Pain research & management : the journal of the Canadian Pain Society = journal de la societe canadienne pour le traitement de la douleur. 2010;15(5):323-334.
  7. Liliang PC, Lu K, Hsieh CH, Kao CY, Wang KW, Chen HJ. Pulsed radiofrequency of cervical medial branches for treatment of whiplash-related cervical zygapophysial joint pain. Surgical neurology. 2008;70Suppl1:S1:50-55; discussion S51:55.