Whiplash is the injury to the neck that occurs in car accidents e.g. a car hitting your car from behind. This results in a sudden unexpected force being placed through the neck. i.e. As the car hits you from behind your shoulders travel forward until they are directly under your head at which point the head and neck go forward towards the steering wheel. As your slam on the brakes your head and neck are forced backwards into the head rest.
In a lot of cases people experience pain a few hours to a day after the accident. A lot of the time the condition will settle within a couple of weeks but in some cases it may become a chronic disabling condition.
People who experience whiplash may develop one or more of the following symptoms, usually within the first two days after the accident:
• Pain in the neck
• Stiffness of the neck
• Pain extending into the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
• Pain extending into the lower back
• Pain, numbness or weakness in the arm and/or hand
• Ringing in the ears or blurred vision
• Difficulty concentrating or remembering
• Difficulty sleeping and fatigue
Diagnosis and treatment
Although the mechanism (cause) of whiplash is well understood the type and extent of injury can greatly vary from person to person. There can be damage to the ligaments, muscles, nerves and discs. These soft tissues can not be seen on a normal x-ray and thus often other scans e.g. MRI are required for a more definitive diagnosis. Unfortunately however in some cases these also do not provide much more insight into the damage to the soft tissues.
The initial management of whiplash will involve resting from aggravating activities, medications and physiotherapy. Physiotherapy will aim at reducing pain and inflammation. This may involve the use of electrotherapeutic modalities, ice, heat, gentle soft tissue techniques, taping or wearing of a soft collar and gentle exercises. Once the condition has settled somewhat treatment would focus more on regaining full function of the neck i.e. strength and range of motion. Your physiotherapist will also assist you in a gradual return to sport and work.
In some cases the condition becomes chronic and requires ongoing investigations and treatment. Some people may even require surgery depending on the involved structures.