What is a Whiplash Injury?

Updated at: Jan 29, 2013
What is a Whiplash Injury?
Editorial Team
PainWritten by: Editorial TeamPublished at: Jan 29, 2013

Whiplash is a common type of neck injury. It occurs to a person's neck most commonly following a motor vehicle accident. The term "whiplash" was introduced  in 1928. The term "whiplash injury" indicates damage the bone structures and soft tissues of the neck, where as the term "whiplash associated disorders" is used to indicate severe and chronic neck condition. Although whiplash is not a life threatening injury, it can cause a prolonged period of partial disability




Causes of whiplash are

  • Contact sport injuries
  • Blow to the head by a falling object or in an assault.
  • Repeated stress injury or chronic strain on the neck like using neck to hold the phone
  • Child abuse, like shaking a child, can cause this type of injury as well as in more serious injuries to the child's brain or spinal cord.




The signs and symptoms of whiplash may occur immediately or minutes to hours after the injury. If the symptoms start soon after the injury the chance of serious damage is higher where as if the symptoms occur later, the injury is usually less severe.


The common symptoms of whiplash include

  • Neck pain
  • Swelling of neck
  • Tenderness along the back of neck
  • Muscle spasms on the side or back of neck
  • Difficulty moving neck 
  • Headache
  • Pain shooting from neck to the shoulder or arm


Exams and Tests


if you are brought to the emergency department with a cervical collar strapped around your neck, the emergency physician will remove the collar without an x-ray or other investigations


if you meet all of the following criteria

  • Normal level of consciousness or alertness
  • No muscle weakness or sensation problem in any part of the body
  • No evidence of intoxication with alcohol or any drug
  • No tenderness in the back of the neck and spine
  • No other major or painful injury elsewhere on the body


Your doctor will not remove the collar if he/she thinks you need x-rays of the neck. In this case the doctor will first examine you to determine if there is any damage to your neck.


The following areas are generally examined

  • Physical strength in your both arms and legs
  • Ability to sense the touch on the skin in different parts of the body
  • Reflexes at the joints of both the arms and legs
  • Pain or tenderness along the back of your neck.
  • Head and neck for any external signs of injury like bruises, cuts, and abrasions.

The investigations that are done include:

  • X-rays of the neck: X-ray of the neck bones is done to make sure that there are no fractures or signs of other serious injury.
  • Computed tomograpy scan (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This is done if your doctor suspects injury to your neck or spinal cord.




Your doctor will recommend a treatment plan that would include a combination of the following measures:

  • Cervical collar: Soft cervical collar is often given in the initial treatment for whiplash. The collar helps to rest the neck, reduces the range of motion of the neck and prevents any additional injuries. However prolonged rest is avoided as this actually slows the healing process.
  • Medications
  • Oral pain relievers and muscle relaxants may be prescribed. Acetaminophen, aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, diclofenac, mefenamic a...


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