Whiplash is a term used to describe the sudden and forceful movement of the head being forced backwards then forward, causing extreme stress on the neck, or cervical spine. In most cases, this is caused by car accidents, but patients may also sustain it from physical activities like bungee jumping, football, skiing, falls, and other high impact or high acceleration sports.
Medically, whiplash is called Cervical Acceleration-Deceleration Syndrome, or CAD.
What Causes Whiplash?
Imagine the slow-motion action of being hit from behind in a car. The rear impact causes the car seat to press against the back, loading the spine with a force that sends the head backward, then forward, straining the muscles and ligaments that support the neck. This forceful, unsupported movement of the cervical spine can cause micro tears in the muscles and ligaments, as well as damage to the alignment of the vertebrae, which results in whiplash pain.
The resulting symptoms may take 24 hours or more to develop, although most will appear within the first 24 hours. These symptoms can be milder and include stiffness or pain in the neck, reduced range of movement, headache, and tenderness in the shoulders and back. Persons may also experience fatigue and dizziness.
Severe Symptoms Associated with Whiplash
In some cases, patients may experience more severe symptoms as a result of whiplash. These can include blurred vision, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and depression. In some extreme cases, individuals may experience emotional changes, becoming moody, anxious or hostile. It is believed that emotional changes may be caused by pain and fatigue from the injury. Depression may be triggered from stress and concern about the injury in general, including financial concerns or litigation issues stemming from the accident.
There are times, however, that these severe symptoms are a result of mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI). When the head and neck are forced into a whipping action, the brain within the skull moves back and forth as well, banging around inside the hard skull. This causes injury to the brain tissue that is associated with certain functions as listed above.
Correctly Diagnosing Whiplash
Consultation alone can frequently provide an accurate diagnosis of whiplash of the neck. A thorough examination will begin with observation of the patient’s posture, movement, and range of motion. The physician will then check for areas of swelling or tenderness to rule out fractures or muscle or ligament tears that may have occurred. If a fracture is suspected or the injury is believed to be more substantial, an X-ray, MRI or other radiographic imaging will be conducted.
When meeting with a doctor, be sure to include all facts related to the injury, as well as any prior conditions or trauma that may be causing neck pain.
Treatment for Whiplash
If the injury is deemed to be a simple muscle strain with no evidence of adjunct fracture or tear, generally, the patient will be sent home with an anti-inflammatory prescription along with some recommendations to rest and to apply ice onto the affected area. Normal activity after a period of a few days or weeks may be resumed depending on the individual’s recovery process. In some cases, patients will be given a soft cervical collar to wear during the day to support the head without placing greater strain on the neck muscles.
When the injury is more complex, a course of physical therapy or chiropractic care is often recommended to heal from a whiplash injury.
At times a doctor may prescribe a course of anti-anxiety or ant-depressant medication to facilitate the recovery.
Complications from Whiplash
Most patients will recover within several weeks. However, recovery is predicated on rest, following any physical therapy or specific treatment plans, and resuming normal activity only when cleared by a physician.
Sometimes patients who have been diagnosed with whiplash will report an increase in pain, additional symptoms, or rapid onset of headaches or blurred vision. In these cases, the diagnosis will be revisited to ensure that micro fractures, blood clots, or other areas of distress have been properly examined. In some instances, hospitalization or surgery may be required to treat the affected area.
Whiplash and Chronic Pain
Chronic pain affects millions of Americans and can be debilitating. Diagnosis of whiplash does not mean that you will be affected by chronic pain. However, to ensure full recovery, it is important to follow the orders of the doctor and to allow the neck adequate time to rest and recover.
Ice, anti-inflammatory drugs, and over-the-counter analgesics are the most commonly prescribed pain relievers. While these help with relief from a simple muscle strain, they are unable to correct the underlying cause of the pain in more complex injuries of the neck. Note seeking a complete solution for the underlying cause is a precipitating factor for many people with ongoing neck pain and headaches.
Alternative Therapies for Treating Whiplash
Some patients prefer to consult with alternative therapy practitioners for treatment. These alternative therapies can include acupuncture, chiropractic care, and massage therapy. In all cases with alternative therapies, it is important to share the diagnosis as well as any resulting complications, such as herniated discs, to ensure comprehensive care.
When resuming normal activity, it is important to treat the neck and its supporting muscles with care and attention. Particularly when exercising, try to be aware of not doing too much too soon, and allow time for rest after periods of activity.
Full recovery can be made from a whiplash diagnosis, but if at any time symptoms worsen or become acute, seek the advice of a trusted medical professional.