As many as three million whiplash injuries occur in the United States every year. Additionally, whiplash is a common source of chronic neck pain, with as much as 45% of people with chronic neck pain attributing their pain to a past whiplash injury. How long does whiplash last, and how do you know if you’re suffering from untreated whiplash symptoms?
What is whiplash?
When the neck is suddenly or violently jolted, first in one direction and then in another, it causes a whip-like motion. This can cause sprains or strains to the structures in the neck by stretching these structures beyond their usual limits. The muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves can all be affected. In some cases, the discs in the vertebrae of the neck can be torn, leading to a disc herniation. Among people with osteoporosis, a whiplash injury can even cause fractures to the vertebrae.
Motor vehicle accidents are the most common cause of whiplash injuries. However, it can also occur as a result of sports injuries, work injuries, or falls.
What are untreated whiplash symptoms?
The most common symptoms associated with whiplash are pain and stiffness in the neck. The pain is typically worsened by turning the head. More than two thirds of people with this condition also experience headaches at the base of the skull. It’s also possible for the pain and stiffness to extend into the shoulders, arms, upper back, and upper chest. Irritability, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating can even occur as a result of whiplash.
Whiplash might also be accompanied by some concussion-like symptoms, including:
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty swallowing
- Ringing in the ears
- Jaw pain
How long does whiplash last?
It’s also worth noting that the symptoms of whiplash often take 24-48 hours to appear. Because of this, whiplash injuries sometimes go unreported or untreated. If you ever experience an accident or incident that causes a whip-like movement of your head, stay alert for symptoms a day or two after the incident and see a physician as soon as possible if you begin to experience discomfort.
Once symptoms have developed, they may resolve quickly, but some people continue to experience symptoms of this condition for weeks, months, or years. Unfortunately, chronic whiplash can occur and pain can last years.
The specific structures affected by an injury may play a part in determining how long your symptoms will last. The Whiplash Prevention Campaign notes:
“Some scientists believe that the cause of long-term whiplash symptoms is due to damage of nerves and that the cause of short-term pain may be minor injury to the muscles.”
Recent research has looked into this question even more.
Damage to the neck muscles
A recent study at Northwestern Medicine has found that large amounts of fat in the neck muscles after a whiplash injury suggests that a person will experience chronic pain, disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the injury. This fat has nothing to do with the person’s body shape or size. Rather, the fat that infiltrates the neck muscles indicates muscle atrophy. The chronic whiplash victims who have this increased fat in the neck muscles also have an increased amount of muscle fat in the lower legs.
According to the study author, this suggests that an injury to the spinal cord has occurred. The exact type of injury is unknown, but the study does show that whiplash does not always cause a set array of symptoms with a common severity. Instead, injury can vary from the mild to the severe, and each case should be treated as unique. The precise magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques used to screen the muscles of victims can show the increased muscle fat in the neck as soon as one to two weeks after the initial injury.
Chronic whiplash and neck pain
Until relatively recently, it was unclear why whiplash injuries – which are sometimes so subtle that they’re undetectable on imaging studies – can lead to pain that lasts for weeks, months, or even years. However, researchers have been studying chronic pain from whiplash and have come to a few conclusions. First, it’s become clear that a large number of people who suffer from chronic neck pain have also suffered from acute whiplash injuries in the past. This suggests that many people’s chronic neck pain may originate from a past whiplash injury.
As far as why pain persists after a whiplash injury, there are a few possibilities. One of these possibilities is damage to some of the joints in the neck. While severe damage to the joint structures in the neck is visible in traditional imaging studies (such as X-rays), it’s possible that some people experience difficult-to-detect damage to the bones, tendons, cartilage, or other structures.
One study focused on a specific type of joint in the neck, the zygapophysial joint, and noted:
“The cervical zygapophysial joints are particularly relevant. Clinical and experim