Understanding whiplash

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash, otherwise known as neck strain, is an injury that tears or stretches the muscles and tendons in your neck. Many people correlate whiplash with car accidents, but it can happen any time your head is jerked forward or backward. This injury is different than a neck sprain, which it is sometimes confused with. A sprain is distinctive from a strain in that it is defined by tearing of the ligaments, not muscles and tendons. 

Symptoms of Whiplash

The symptoms of whiplash are hard to ignore. They may appear immediately after the injury occurs, or it could take a few hours or even days before you begin to notice them. If you experience any of these symptoms after an automobile accident or other incident, it is a good idea to see your doctor and make sure you have not sustained any additional injuries, such as a concussion.

Common symptoms include:

  • Pain, when immobile and when moving your head side to side or back and forth
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Tightness
  • Tenderness
  • Headaches at the base of the skull

Treatment of Whiplash

Thankfully, almost all cases of whiplash heal on their own within a few weeks. If your symptoms persist for longer than that amount of time, you should contact your doctor to evaluate the injury and to recommend additional steps. Here are some tips for at home-treatment of whiplash:

  • Ice the affected area: You should place a cold compress or a bag of ice wrapped in a washcloth on your neck as quickly as possible after the injury occurs. Keep it on there for 20 to 30 minutes and repeat every 3 to 4 hours for a few days, or until the swelling begins to  subside. 
  • Take painkillers: Over-the-counter drugs, like Advil, Motrin, or Aleve, will help alleviate the pain and swelling in your neck. If your injury is more severe, you may need to contact your doctor to obtain a prescription for stronger painkillers and muscle relaxants.
  • Use a neck brace: Moving your neck and head around will cause pain and can slow down the healing process, so it’s best to keep your neck supported for the first day or two after the accident. It is not advised to use the brace for longer than that, though, as it can weaken your neck muscles over time. 
  • Apply moist heat: Only start using moist heat after you have iced the area for 2-3 days and the swelling has decreased. Warm, wet towels or a warm bath are preferable to patches like Icy Hot because the moisture is just as important as the heat. 
  • Get a massage: If you are in too much pain or don’t want to take a lot of painkillers, massage is another option. You are advised to go to a chiropractor or licensed masseuse to ensure that additional injury is not inflicted on the area due to improper technique.

Prevention of Whiplash

There are not many steps you can take to prevent whiplash in the future, but there are a few ways you can decrease your odds of experiencing this injury or at least decrease the severity of it.

  • Use headrests: Most cars have headrests already, but you need to make sure they are at the correct height to prevent your head from jerking backwards in an accident.
  • Strengthen your muscles: Particularly if you have had a neck injury before, you should practice strengthening exercises to keep your neck muscles strong and limber, which lowers your chance of severe injury. Some of those exercises include moving your chin towards your chest, your chin away from your chest, and your head side to side, all with a partner applying some slight resistance with their hands. 
Last Updated: June 26, 2015