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Whiplash Injury Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 06, 2020 0 Comments

Also referred to as cervical acceleration-deceleration syndrome, whiplash affects the cervical spine and surrounding tissues of the neck. It occurs when the head suddenly goes backward and then forward. The impact causes the tissues of the neck to stretch past their normal ranges of motion. The nerve roots, cervical muscles, ligaments, discs, intervertebral joints typically sustain minimal damage, yet severe damage is possible.

Common Causes of Whiplash

How do you know if you have whiplash? This type of injury can occur in several ways. It can be associated with a neck injury sustained after a fall. But whiplash may also result from:

  • Road Accidents

    Based on numerous reported cases of whiplash, car accidents are the most common cause of the injury. Soft tissues of the neck are damaged when the head is literally “whipped” in one direction upon impact (depending on where the car is hit). Being rear-ended is associated with the highest risk of experiencing a whiplash injury.

  • Contact Sports

    Whiplash may also occur during extreme sports such as boxing, karate, football, snowboarding, diving, and horseback riding. The force of an impact can damage soft tissues of the neck.

  • An Assault

    Physical abuse, such as being shaken or punched hard, may cause whiplash injuries when the head is jerked forward and then snaps back.

Whiplash Symptoms

What does whiplash feel like? Knowing what to expect can relieve anxiety over a neck injury. Symptoms may be delayed for twenty-four hours or even a few days after the initial trauma. For those with whiplash, neck pain that progresses in a headache is often the first symptom. Other whiplash symptoms include:

  • Dull, aching neck pain and upper back pain
  • Neck stiffness
  • Jaw pain
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

More severe issues that are less common with whiplash include the following.  If you do experience these symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately to rule out more serious neck injuries.  

  • Stabbing shoulder pain or pain between the shoulder blades
  • Weakness or numbness in the hand and arm
  • Irritability and trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Trouble with concentration and memory

Side Effects

In some cases, symptoms are minor and subside in a few days. Whiplash that lasts for more than six weeks is considered chronic. Severe whiplash symptoms can cause lingering chronic symptoms, which is why it is important to see a doctor immediately after an accident and then schedule a follow-up, as the symptoms are often slow onset. 

If you have severe whiplash symptoms, delayed treatment can lead to a decrease in quality of life. A whiplash neck injury can be associated with more complicated injury and damage that affects the stability and structure of your neck, which may result in severe damage and unnecessary suffering if not treated early and properly.

Diagnosing Chronic Whiplash

Contact your doctor right away if you have had a sudden blow to your head or if you have been involved in a motor vehicle accident. You will be asked how the injury happened and about your symptoms. Your doctor will observe your posture for any abnormalities, feel your neck to look for tightness or tenderness, and test your neck’s range of motion.

Diagnostic Imaging

Diagnostic imaging is typically recommended if a neurological problem or fracture is suspected. Often, a standard whiplash X-ray cannot show damage to soft tissues such as the ligaments, muscles, and discs. An MRI, CT scan, or diffuse tensor imaging may be used to confirm the signs of whiplash if necessary.  However, whiplash diagnosis and treatment is typically best addressed according to present symptoms. 

Whiplash Associated Disorder

The term “whiplash” is now more commonly known in the medical community as whiplash associated disorder, or WAD. This encompasses all the symptoms associated with whiplash that are present without any evident structural changes to the neck vertebrae or connective tissues.

Unfortunately, estimates show that about 30% to 50% of individuals who suffer from asymptomatic whiplash injury are likely to report it as chronic. The likelihood that a patient will develop WAD depends on factors such as the severity of the force and whether neck pain is present before the accident.

Whiplash Injury Compensation

If you plan to make a whiplash injury compensation claim, have your healthcare provider create a detailed record of your symptoms. Also, contact your lawyer to analyze your situation and to determine whether you are entitled to a settlement.

Recovering from Severe Whiplash

It is difficult to predict the recovery time for whiplash, especially if it’s severe. Prolonged whiplash pain can make it complicated to enjoy life and perform daily activities. The best approach to whiplash recovery is to remain positive, be patient, and focus on your treatment plan with your doctor, physical therapist, and/or chiropractor. Early intervention is key to preventing acute injuries from becoming chronic and affecting the overall quality of life.

SHOP WHIPLASH PRODUCTS

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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