Overview

Whiplash is a neck injury due to forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck, like the cracking of a whip. Whiplash most often occurs during a rear-end auto accident, but the injury can also result from a sports accident, physical abuse or other trauma.

Common signs and symptoms of whiplash include neck pain, stiffness and headaches. Most people with whiplash recover within a few months after a course of pain medication, exercise and other treatments. Some people experience chronic neck pain and other ongoing complications.

Whiplash may be called a neck sprain or strain, but these terms also include other types of neck injuries.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of whiplash usually develop within 24 hours of the injury and may include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Worsening of pain with neck movement
  • Loss of range of motion in the neck
  • Headaches, most often starting at the base of the skull
  • Tenderness or pain in shoulder, upper back or arms
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Some people also experience:

  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Depression

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you experience any neck pain or other whiplash symptoms following a car accident, sports injury or other traumatic injury. It is important to get a prompt and accurate diagnosis and to rule out fractures or other tissue damage that may be contributing to symptoms.

Causes

Whiplash typically occurs when a person's head is forcefully and quickly thrown backward and then forward. This motion can injure bones in the spine, disks between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves and other tissues of the neck.

This type of injury may result from:

  • Auto accidents. Rear-end collisions are the most common cause of whiplash.
  • Physical abuse or assault. Whiplash may also result from incidents of being punched or shaken. Whiplash is one of the injuries sustained in shaken baby syndrome.
  • Contact sports. Football tackles and other sports-related collisions can sometimes cause whiplash injuries.

Complications

Most people who experience whiplash will recover within a few months. However, some people continue to have pain for several months or years after the injury occurred.

It is difficult to predict the outcome, but in general, chronic pain may be more likely when the initial symptoms include rapid onset of pain, severe neck pain, headaches and pain that radiates to the arms.

Jan. 20, 2015
References
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