Whiplash Injury Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

If you have ever been involved in an auto accident or in a fall while playing any sport, you may already be familiar with whiplash injury. It is a pain that anyone would want to avoid.  This injury, however, can lead to bigger complications if left untreated. The pain due to a whiplash injury is persistent and ranges from a sharp unbearable pain to faint but persistent pain depending upon the extent of the injury. 

In this article, we will discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment of a whiplash injury. We will also focus on how road-accidents can be a major cause of this injury.  

What is Whiplash? 

Whiplash is a neck sprain or injury which is caused due to some rapid forceful movements of the neck. The “whip” reference in this injury’s name is synonymous with the movement of a whip being cracked. This kind of neck injury is most common during a car accident. However, whiplash may also occur when there is a crash landing or a collision of any other kind. Physical abuse, trauma, or a fall may also lead to a whiplash injury. 

Causes of Whiplash 

A whiplash injury occurs when the head is forcefully moved and thrown forward and backward in swift motions. This sudden and swift motion may injure the spinal bones, discs, muscles, nerves, ligaments, and tissues in the neck. These swift motions may result due to one of the following reasons: 

  • Automobile Accidents – Collisions to the rear-end of the car are a major reason for whiplash injury 
  • Assault, Trauma or Physical Abuse – This injury may also occur if you are shaken or hit or punched or due to any sudden trauma or abuse. 
  • Contact Sport – On the field during a football tackle or playing rugby or any other games in which you may collide with an opponent, whiplash injury is common. 

Often, the pain and the sprain caused by a whiplash injury does not set in instantly. You might start feeling the pain much later. It is therefore important for you to know about the symptoms and signs of this injury. There are a whole set of symptoms and in case of a whiplash injury, of which one, two, several may be present. Let’s have a look at these symptoms. 

Symptoms of Whiplash 

As mentioned, the symptoms and pain associated with a whiplash injury often set in within the first 24 hours. This, however, is not always the case. Pain might appear a few days after the injury occurred as well. Symptoms of a whiplash injury include:  

  • Stiffness and pain in the neck
  • Pain worsens as you move your neck 
  • Being unable to move your neck too much / range of motion decreases 
  • Headaches that often start from the base of your skull and radiate outward
  • Tenderness and pain in the upper back, arms or shoulder 
  • Numbness and tingling of the arms 
  • General fatigue 
  • Dizziness 

In addition to the above symptoms, some isolated instances of whiplash injury also recorded the following conditions in patients: 

  • Cases of blurred vision 
  • Tinnitus or ringing inside the ears 
  • Disturbed and poor quality of sleep 
  • Getting irritated easily 
  • Concentration issues – difficulty in concentration 
  • Memory lapses and issues with remembering simple things 
  • Signs of depression and anxiety 

Potential Complications Associated with Whiplash 

While many symptoms of a whiplash injury subside in a few weeks, some people may experience pain continuing for several months and even years after the injury has occurred. The exact circumstances and the conditions under which a whiplash injury occurs are different for every individual.  Therefore, it is difficult to predict the recovery time for a whiplash injury.  

Your initial symptoms, if left untreated, may also lead to chronic pain.  It can start with severe pain in the neck that spreads and radiates to the arms. A whiplash injury might also lead to a chronic headache that fails to relent. This injury and the pain linked to this injury can get worse if the patient has had a similar injury before or any existing conditions of back pain or if the patient is too old. 

Diagnosis of Whiplash 

Your doctor will ask you basic questions for preliminary investigations and to recognize your symptoms. You will be asked questions to determine the cause of the injury, the nature and the extent of the sprain to your neck and to determine the severity of the pain and the symptoms. You will be asked questions about your range of motion and about obstructions to the neck movements, if any. Let’s look at the procedure of the diagnosis and the examination in detail. 


While examining your sprain or injury, your doctor would need to move your head, arms, and neck. You may also be asked to twist and turn your neck to the farthest extent that you are capable on either side. You may also be asked to do some simple day to day tasks to help your doctor determine the following: 

  • The maximum range of movement in your shoulders and neck. 
  • The degree and the angle or the position at which you experience the pain 
  • Tenderness in the back, shoulders or neck area 
  • Reflexes, sensation and the strength in the limbs 

 Imaging Tests 

After the preliminary examination and investigation, your doctor will order imaging tests to look for any condition that may worsen the pain. These tests can include one or a combination of different tests. Imaging tests commonly ordered for whiplash injuries are as follows: 

  • X-rays – X-rays are the most common imaging tests ordered to figure out fractures or any possible dislocations of the neck 
  • Computerized tomography (CT) – This special X-ray imaging technique produces a cross-sectional view of the bones and helps to detect any possible bone damage 
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – A combination of a magnetic field and radio waves are used to get clear 3-D images. MRI scans can detect everything from bone injuries, spinal cord damage, soft tissue damage, ligament, or muscle damage. 

 Now that we have seen the diagnosis, let’s have a look at the treatment procedures. 

Treatment of Whiplash 

The treatment plan administered by your doctor is based on the severity of your pain and other conditions like restriction of movement. Treatment procedures are generally aimed towards controlling the pain and restoring your range of motion in your neck.  Hopefully, getting you back to normal activities fast.  

While some people will only need some over-the-counter medication and care at home, others may need prescribed medication, specialized pain treatment or even physical therapy. 

Treatment can be further classified as: 

Pain Management 

For pain management, doctors may primarily recommend ample rest during the initial 24 hours of the injury. This allows the muscles to start recovering themselves. 

The doctors may also recommend heat or cold compress for fifteen minutes several times a day. Additionally, the doctor may also administer over-the-counter medications or even prescribe medicines for severe pain. In many cases, muscle relaxant drugs and injections that control and reduce pain may also be given. 


To achieve and restore the full range of motion of your neck your doctor may prescribe certain movement and stretching exercises which may include rotating your neck to either side, tilting your head, bending your neck to touch your shoulder, etc. These exercises help relax and free the affected area.  If your doctor recommends exercise to help relieve your symptoms, it is very important that you follow his or her instructions and so as not to re-injure the affected area.

Physical Therapy 

You may also be recommended to see a physical or occupational therapist in case of persistent, chronic pain. Physical therapy works is vitally important when it comes to the treatment of any pain or achieving and restoring your range of motion. This is because the therapy aims at strengthening your muscles naturally. The length and the frequency of these sessions vary on a case to case basis. 

Duration of Pain/Injury 

Based on the severity of the injury as mentioned earlier the pain due to whiplash injury can last for a week, to several months or even years. The best approach is to identify the symptoms and to make sure that a proper treatment plan and procedure are followed. 

Whiplash and Automobile Accidents 

Many cases of whiplash injuries are found in cases where the patient is involved in an automobile or car accident. This is particularly true in cases of rear-end collision, where the patient’s body and head moves ahead and backward in a forced manner and as a result of the impact. Many practitioners refer to the head and neck as the “bowling ball on a spring.” This description illustrates how an impact from a rear end collision could force the head to whip back and forth. It is easy to imagine, then, how the soft tissue and muscles supporting the head could become injured during an impact. 


Though a whiplash injury can be treated, the unpredictability of the recovery time can be frustrating. Additionally, the lack of motion resulting from this injury makes the experience difficult and uncomfortable for the patients. The pain that follows may take a long time to resolve, thus making participation in many daily activities difficult or impossible. 

If you have been injured in an automobile accident, you will need professional treatment, healing time, and an experienced attorney who can deal with the insurance companies while you heal.