With an estimated three million people in the U.S. affected by whiplash annually, the long-term effects of whiplash can reach far beyond your initial injury. Also referred to as whiplash-associated disorder (WAD), chronic whiplash can have a lasting impact on your quality of life. Here’s what you need to know.
What is whiplash?
Our bodies are fluid and highly mobile, but as with everything else in the world, the laws of physics apply to humans, too. Whiplash is a strain of the neck that occurs under fairly specific circumstances.
Consider a car accident. When your car is traveling forward and stops suddenly, your body continues to travel forward until it is stopped by something (hopefully your seatbelt!). When the core of the body stops moving, though, the extremities are still in motion. Your head, in particular, will continue to travel until it reaches the end of its extension on the neck. This moment snaps your neck to its extreme range of motion, and then back, like a whip.
The cervical spine is mobile, but this violent whip-like motion places the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the neck under extreme strain. This strain occurs most frequently in automobile accidents but is also common in contact sports and with assault or physical abuse.
What are common whiplash symptoms?
People who experience whiplash symptoms might immediately feel pain and soreness. Other whiplash symptoms may be slower to appear. They can include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Problems with memory
- Blurry vision
- Ringing ears
- Tingling or numbness in the arms and hands
- Jaw pain
Whiplash symptoms may also include headache, shoulder pain, and pain in the middle (and lower) back. A person’s range of motion may also be limited for a period of time, as stiffness sets in.
In some cases, symptoms may not appear right after the injury or accident. The adrenaline surge that occurs during a traumatic event can mask symptoms directly after the accident. Many people will feel shaken up but otherwise fine, only to experience whiplash symptoms later in the hours or days that follow.
How long does whiplash last?
Understanding that whiplash symptoms may not appear for a day or two after the accident or trauma, the big question is how long does whiplash last?
The answer really depends on the extent of the injuries. Many people involved in minor car accidents (the leading cause of whiplash) or other minor accidental trauma will rest for a week or so and recover fully.
For others, recovery is not so simple. Chronic whiplash occurs when muscles and nerves in the neck are damaged during the whiplash event. Why this happens in some people and not others relates to certain risk factors.
One study suggests that additional fatty deposits in the neck increases the risk of a person developing chronic whiplash. This has little or nothing to do with a person being overweight. Rather, excess fat in the neck means that muscles have atrophied and are less able to absorb the impact of whiplash.
Other research has found that a prior neck injury, either from whiplash or another traumatic event, also increases the risk of whiplash pain becoming chronic. Previous injuries may have caused undetectable injury to smaller ligaments, muscles, and bones, injuries that flare up when the neck is stretched beyond its normal range of motion.
Finally, people who suffer from nerve-related pain in the neck, either from whiplash or other injury, have a lower pain threshold and may experience chronic whiplash. These previous injuries may overstimulate the central nervous system – the body’s processing center for all stimuli – leading to an oversensitive pain response.
The simple answer is that each person and their injury is unique. For otherwise healthy people with no prior neck injuries, whiplash symptoms may only last a week or so. For others, the long-term effects of whiplash may be more profound.
6 potential long-term effects of whiplash
Beyond the acute symptoms, there are potential long-term effects of whiplash that can result in a chronic condition.
1. Severe neck pain
Severe neck pain is one of the most common long-term effects of whiplash.
Your head weighs approximately ten pounds. If you are in a car that is rear-ended at eight miles per hour, your head can move forward by 18 inches at a force of seven Gs or more. Your ten-pound head would have 70 pounds of force placed on it in a very short span of time.
This force can have a ripple effect from the base of the skull to the lower back. Muscles are suddenly pulled to the end of their range of motion and beyond. Within and surrounding the muscles, connective tissues, tendons, and ligaments are also suddenly pulled beyond their limits. Tendons and ligaments take much longer to heal than muscles.
Additionally, any swelling in the neck can press on nerves, causing pain that radiates down the arms and across the upper back.
Considering that whiplash injuries can occur even at speeds as low as six miles per hour, anything above that is likely to damage the delicate anatomy of the neck, shoulders, and lower back.
2. Bouts of dizziness
In many ways, whiplash resembles concussion. In concussion injuries, the soft tissues of the brain become injured when the skull stops suddenly and the brain within continues forward. Indeed, concussion may actually be a part of a whiplash injury.
One of the most troubling long-term effects of whiplash is intermittent bouts of dizziness. Why this occurs is not well-understood, and it does not necessarily mean that there has been damage to the brain itself.
What is understood is that whiplash injuries affect more than just the cervical spine. They can have impacts that last well beyond the initial injury. You may experience bouts of dizziness and with them feelings of nausea. This can severely impact daily life for those who suffer from this whiplash symptom.
3. Chronic lower back pain
Although the focus of most discussions of whiplash centers on the cervical spine, chronic lower back pain after a whiplash injury is also possible.
As with the neck, the whip-like motion of whiplash brings the lower back to its extreme range of motion and back, very quickly. Even with its heightened mobility, the lower back is vulnerable to facet joint injuries, muscular strain, and spinal fracture due to whiplash.
4. Chronic stiffness and limited mobility
This occurs most often in people who do not seek treatment after whiplash. Chronic neck stiffness occurs when a person with an already limited range of motion experiences whiplash and then does not complete the proper restorative exercises for recovery.
Our tendons and ligaments will only stretch and move as much as they need to. When we become immobilized for a period of time, they become tighter. We can loosen and lengthen them over time, but it requires patience and persistence.
If you have whiplash and do not move your neck gradually through an increased range of motion under your doctor’s or physical therapist’s care, you may experience chronic stiffness. You may also have very limited mobility in your neck (both often worse in the morning).
5. Ringing ears
Ringing ears can be infrequent, or it may be constant. This long-term effect of whiplash occurs most often in conjunction with dizziness.
This may be related to changes in the inner ear due to the whiplash.
6. Chronic headaches
Chronic headache after whiplash can occur due to a variety of factors. Previous concussion and the severity of the whiplash may be the best predictor of a person developing chronic headache after whiplash.
Interestingly, depression is a factor in whether or not a person develops chronic headaches. Women are also more likely to experience whiplash-related chronic headaches.
How to treat whiplash
It is hard to predict whether your whiplash pain will progress past the acute stages to become chronic, but there are a few indicators.
For example, you are more likely to develop chronic whiplash if you experience immediate, intense symptoms of whiplash after injury. Additionally, those who have suffered previous injury to the neck are more likely to experience the long-term effects of whiplash.
Fortunately, and with proper treatment, the majority of people with whiplash recover fully after just a few weeks.
The first crucial step is to be seen by a doctor immediately following even a minor traumatic incident. You may not feel whiplash trauma immediately, as the body masks symptoms with adrenaline and cortisol. Only your doctor can assess internal damage with diagnostic testing.
Whiplash treatment consists of pain management and rehabilitative exercise and support.
For many people, a day or two of rest is a good idea. Much more than that can increase stiffness and hamper recovery, but always follow your doctor’s advice.
While you rest, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help ease your pain and inflammation. You may also want to apply hot or cold packs to ease swelling and relax tense muscles. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxants for short-term use. This can be helpful if you are experiencing muscle spasms or muscular pain.
For intractable muscle pain, a lidocaine injection may be necessary. This is recommended when pain is too severe to begin rehabilitation (but it’s time to get moving).
In some cases, you may also benefit from the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). This minimally-invasive treatment replaces painful sensations with a mild electrical buzz. Research on the effectiveness of TENS for neck pain is limited. However, it can be a good conservative step to move towards rehabilitation.
Getting back to your normal routine as quickly as possible is one of the best ways to recover from whiplash. To do this, your doctor may recommend visiting a physical therapist or chiropractor.
Both can provide therapies and exercises that restore mobility and range of motion on your neck. These exercises may consist of:
- Rotating your neck from side to side
- Tilting it back and forth
- Rolling your shoulders
- Touching your chin to your chest
They may also recommend the use of a foam collar in between sessions. This can provide lengthening support for your neck while you heal.
Other treatment options
Complementary medicine may also help relieve the pain of whiplash and reduce the risk of chronic whiplash. Acupuncture and massage, for example, offer benefits to the body and mind after a traumatic injury.
Whether you are experiencing the acute or long-term effects of whiplash, it’s time to get help. You can find a pain doctor 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/.