Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
Whiplash is one of the most debilitating injuries you can suffer, often lingering for weeks or even months. Also referred to as neck sprain or strain, whiplash may involve damage to nerves, muscles, ligaments, and even discs in your upper back.
What Causes Whiplash?
As the name suggests, whiplash involves a violent snapping of your head back and forth, much like the crack of a whip. Most often the result of a motor vehicle accident, whiplash can occur any time the forward movement of your torso is impeded, but your head keeps moving. When your neck fully stretches forward, the elasticity in your muscles and ligaments then cause it to jerk backward, compounding your injury.
How Do You Know If You Have Whiplash?
Don’t be surprised if it takes a few days for the symptoms of whiplash to appear; however, it’s common for symptoms such as these to occur within 24 to 48 hours after an accident:
- Persistent headaches, often at the base of your skull or radiating into your neck
- Difficulty turning your head left or right, or soreness when you lift your head up or down
- Tenderness or pain in your shoulders or between your shoulder blades
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or vertigo
- Pain, numbness, or tingling in your upper extremities, including arms, hands, or fingers
- Cognitive dysfunction, including difficulties with short-term or long-term memory, loss of focus or concentration, or challenges putting thoughts together
- Uncommon irritability or mood swings
- Sleep changes, including either insomnia or excessive fatigue
- Lower-back pain
Your doctor cannot use X-ray technology to diagnose whiplash; however, other imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scan technology, can show damage to muscles, ligaments, and discs.
Treating a Whiplash Injury
A significant part of the pain caused by whiplash stems from inflammation. Ibuprofen or naproxen can minimize inflammation and provide some temporary relief. Heat and ice also can help alleviate inflammation and discomfort, and gentle massage or ultrasound can be helpful in the early days after a whiplash injury. As you move forward, a gentle, graduated exercise program can strengthen muscles and reduce pain. In cases of severe whiplash, you may need to immobilize your neck while everything heals.