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Whiplash

NHS Direct Online Health Encyclopaedia

 

Introduction

Whiplash is when a sudden movement or jolt to the body or head causes damage to the ligaments and tendons (the tissues that connect bones), and muscles in the neck.

It causes pain, stiffness and loss of movement in the neck.

Other symptoms can include

  • headaches, 
  • muscle spasms, and 
  • pain in the shoulders or arms.

Whiplash is common after motor vehicle accidents, when a collision jolts the head violently. However, the condition can also result from a blow to the head or through long-term repetitive damage to the neck.

Symptoms

Symptoms of whiplash often don’t appear when the injury is caused. It may take 6–12 hours for symptoms to show and they may continue to get worse in the days after the injury. Sometimes, it may even take a few days for any symptoms to show.

Common symptoms of whiplash are:

  • neck pain and stiffness,
  • neck swelling,
  • tenderness along the back of the neck,
  • loss of movement in the neck, and
  • headaches.

Other symptoms can include:

  • pain in the lower back,
  • pains or numbness, or paraesthesia (pins and needles), in the arms or hands,
  • muscle spasms,
  • dizziness,
  • tiredness,
  • difficulty in swallowing, 
  • blurred vision, and
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

Sometimes whiplash can even lead to loss of memory, poor concentration and irritability.

Usually, symptoms begin to improve after a few days and in around 60% of cases, symptoms completely disappear after four weeks.

Sometimes it takes a few months for symptoms to completely go away and some people will still have some stiffness and pain some time after the injury occurred.

Causes

Whiplash happens when a sudden jerk or jolt to your body or head makes your head move violently away from the body. This makes your neck move beyond its normal range of movement so the ligaments, tendons and muscles in your neck, stretch and strain.

A common cause of whiplash is a car or motorcycle accident, when the force of stopping suddenly, or a collision, makes your head move away from your body. It doesn’t matter from which side a collision happens - whiplash can happen if your head is thrown sideways, as well as forward or back. Even collisions at slow speed can cause whiplash.

Whiplash can also be caused by:

  • a sudden blow to the head, caused by contact sports or from being hit by an object,
  • long-term and repetitive damage to the neck (such as cradling a telephone between your shoulder and head on a regular basis), and
  • everyday activities - if you slip or fall, causing a jolt to the head.

In children, whiplash can be a sign of abuse. If a child is shaken violently, it can cause the head to jolt causing whiplash injury.

Diagnosis

If you think you have whiplash and haven’t already received medical attention, you should see your GP. They will make a diagnosis by asking you how the injury happened, and what symptoms you are experiencing.

Your GP may also use an X-ray, CT (computerised tomography scan) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan) to take pictures of the structure of bones in your neck and back. Whiplash cannot be diagnosed with these tests, as the pictures can’t show damage to tendons, ligaments and muscles. The tests are used to find out if there is damage or fractures to bones in your neck or spine as a result of your injury.

Treatment

Whiplash is treated by dealing with any pain, and by healing the damage to the affected area.

Apply an ice pack soon after the injury occurs to help reduce swelling. Do not apply ice directly onto your skin. Use a towel to wrap the ice to provide a protective barrier. Apply the ice for around 10-30 minutes at a time.

Take a painkiller such as paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory painkiller such as ibuprofen, which will reduce pain and reduce swelling. Always follow the instructions and ask your pharmacist for advice if you have any other conditions or if you are taking any other medication.

At first you may need to rest your neck, but as the pain eases, try to exercise your neck as much as possible. Gradually try to increase the range of neck movements and continue with normal activities where you can.

You will also find it helpful to support your head with a good pillow when you sleep, and to have good posture (body shape) – walk with your back and neck straight and sit upright.

A complementary therapist such as an osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist may also be able to advise you on other treatments such as massage or ultrasound. Your GP can advise you if complementary therapy is available on the NHS in your area.

You don’t need a GP referral to have complementary therapy. But, if you contact a clinic for private treatment, make sure they are fully qualified and an accredited member of the appropriate organisation. For example, The British Acupuncture Council or General Osteopathic Council. See web resources for a list of organisations that can provide more information, and details of registered therapists in your area.

Complications

In a very small number of cases, some symptoms can last for more than six months before they finally go. Sometimes, there may even be long-term neck discomfort, depending on how bad the injury is, and how effective treatment has been.

Prevention

Correctly adjusting the headrests in your vehicle can restrict some of the backwards movement of the head in a crash. It is difficult to prevent the head moving forwards or sideways.

© Queen's Printer and Controller of HMSO, 2005

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the controller of HMSO and the Queens Printer for Scotland

 

 

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