What is whiplash?
Whiplash is pain and stiffness in the neck after an injury that has caused the neck to move suddenly or beyond its normal range.
It occurs when the head is suddenly forced backward or forward and is then snapped in the other direction. This kind of motion most often happens to people in a car that is hit from behind. Less commonly, it might happen in a fall, a sports injury, or if you are roughly shaken. The motion causes stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck, and it may damage the nerves. Because of this rapid movement of the head, all the tissues become inflamed. The first few days following your injury tend to be the worst. In rare cases, it may cause broken bones.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of whiplash are pain and stiffness in the neck and sometimes in the muscles in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms. You also may have a headache, feel dizzy, and have pain in your back. You may not have any symptoms until the day after your injury. Or your symptoms may go away but then return a few days later.
You may have a more serious injury if you have:
- Severe pain in your neck.
- Pain down one or both arms.
- Pain that comes back after being gone for a few days.
- Numbness or tingling in your hands, arms, chest, or legs.
- Weakness in your arms, hands, or legs.
- Inability to move your head.
How is whiplash diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your neck injury and past health, and he or she will carefully examine your head and neck. You may need X-rays to make sure there are no broken bones in your neck. You may also need an imaging test such as an MRI or CT scan to look for other injuries.
How is it treated?
- Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter pain medicine such as Paracetamol or a non steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as Ibuprofen. Your doctor may prescribe pain medicines to help with continuing or severe pain. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
- In the first few days, applying ice to your neck will help to settle the inflammation in your muscles and other tissues. Use of NSAIDs can help you to manage the acute symptoms of inflammation. Painkillers help you to prevent tensing your other muscles and ease the pain enough for you to be able to sleep. After a few days, place heat on the muscles over the top of your shoulders and your upper back to aid relaxation in these areas.
- Avoid activities such as lifting and sports that make pain and stiffness worse.
- Place a special pillow or a tightly rolled-up towel under your neck while you sleep. Do not use your regular pillow at the same time.
- Whilst you will want to spend a lot of the time allowing your neck to recover, holding it rigidly in one position will likely exacerbate your pain. Performing some gentle neck movements will help to minimise this. In the early days these are often best done whilst lying on your back.
- Be careful you do not start tensing other parts of your body. Relax your shoulders, keep your neck long and your shoulder blades rested back and down.
- When at work, make sure you are able to hold your head in a neutral position, and gently stretch your neck every 15 minutes.
- As your pain reduces and your exercises become easier, you can increase the depth of your stretches. This may be a few days after your injury depending on the severity of your pain. You may also experience pain in your upper back, so it is important to stretch this area out too. Throughout your recovery, stretches are best done little and often. You may be left with feelings of weakness around your neck. Building strength back into your muscles in key to getting your full recovery. Your clinician will guide you through your exercises at a rate appropriate for you.
It takes up to 3 months for the neck to heal, even though most pain may be gone in less time. More severe whiplash may take longer, but it usually improves within 6 to 12 months.
How can you prevent whiplash?
To help prevent whiplash when you drive, always wear your seat belt and adjust your headrest to the proper height.
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