signs of whiplash

Whiplash: When to Be Worried

When the body is thrown forward while the head is thrown backward, the neck can be hyperextended, resulting in whiplash. This is most common in rear-end car accidents and sports injuries when the player gets hit from behind, although other physical injuries may cause it as well. In some cases, a few days of a sore neck and a headache may be the worst of it, but it can take a few months for everything to heal up properly. 

There are times, however, when chronic problems result, referred to as whiplash associated disorder. While you should always go to a doctor following a head or neck injury for further testing to ensure nothing permanent or terrible has happened, not everyone does. But whiplash isn’t always just pulled muscles—there could be vertebrae dislocated, fractures, or other, more serious issues at hand. Here are some signs the whiplash you’re dealing with is not going to heal at home and you should absolutely see a physician for help. Even if you don’t notice any of these more extreme symptoms of whiplash, if you aren’t feeling better within a few days, it’s still a good idea to schedule some time with your doctor. 

Excessive Pain

While there is always going to be some pain and stiffness in the neck following this kind of injury, for minor cases you should start to notice the pain receding within a few days. Your range of motion should be coming back slowly, helped along by a series of gentle stretches and exercises. If you find that several days have gone by, and your neck is still painful enough to interfere with mild stretching (for example, slowly turning the head side to side, or tilting ears to shoulders and chin to neck), it’s probably time to make an appointment. 

If the pain isn’t only in the neck, there may be serious damage. Note any pain that begins to spread down your spine, into the shoulders, shoulder blades, and lower back. If the muscles or vertebrae are misplaced and pulled severely, you may begin to feel it spreading down the arms, causing tenderness, tingling, or numbing. You may even feel it in your jaw.

Cognitive Disturbances

Some researchers have tried to suggest that whiplash is more of a psychological issue than a physical issue. While it is most certainly a physical condition, it is true there are psychological problems associated with it. You may notice a ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or have trouble with blurry vision; these suggest more serious care is needed.

The pain may also interfere with sleeping. Between sleep loss and suffering, it may become difficult to concentrate and your memory may not be as good as it was before the injury.  Additionally, you may notice mood changes. Some people become more irritated, angry, or even depressed. If you notice any of these, or just feel that you aren’t quite yourself, get yourself to the doctor right away, so that further testing can search for fractures or damage to the spine or surrounding tissues and proper treatment can begin, in hopes of preventing chronic issues. 

Last Updated: June 25, 2015