What is whiplash?
Whiplash is a term used to describe a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.
It often occurs after a sudden impact such as a road traffic accident. The vigorous movement of the head damages the ligaments and tendons in the neck.
Tendons are tough, fibrous bands that connect muscles to bone. Ligaments are the fibrous connective tissues that link two bones together at a joint.
Common symptoms of whiplash include:
- neck pain and stiffness
- tenderness over the neck muscles
- reduced and painful neck movements
After an accident, the symptoms of whiplash often take a while (6-12 hours) to develop.
The neck pain and stiffness is often worse on the day after the injury and may get worse for several days afterwards.
Causes of whiplash
Road accidents are the main cause of whiplash, but it can also occur following:
- a sudden blow to the head – for example, during contact sports such as boxing or rugby
- a slip or fall where the head is suddenly and violently jolted backwards
- being struck on the head by a heavy or solid object
Whiplash can usually be diagnosed from a description of your symptoms. Tests and scans are not usually required.
Visit a doctor if you have recently had a road accident or a sudden impact to your head and are experiencing pain and stiffness in your neck.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and details of how the injury happened. They may also examine your neck for signs of muscle spasms, tenderness and to assess the range of movement in your neck.
X-rays and scans, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), will usually only be recommended if a fracture or other problem is suspected.
Whiplash is often a self-limiting condition, meaning it eventually gets better on its own or after some basic treatment.
If you have whiplash, it is better to move your neck rather than keep it still using a neck brace or collar. Your neck may be painful, but keeping it mobile from an early stage will improve its functionality and speed up your recovery.
Whiplash that lasts for six months or more is sometimes known as chronic whiplash or late whiplash syndrome.
Your treatment plan should be based on your symptoms.
In many cases, whiplash will eventually get better without any lasting damage. However, in a small number of cases, the pain can last for six months or longer (chronic whiplash).
If you experience prolonged pain, you may find it difficult to carry out daily activities and enjoy your leisure time. It may also cause problems at work and could lead to anxiety and depression.
Visit a doctor if you have chronic neck pain that is causing problems with work and carrying out normal, everyday activities.