Whiplash: Signs, Symptoms and Management

Whiplash: Signs, symptoms and management 

What is whiplash?

Whiplash means a neck injury that happens when something makes your neck move rapidly and forcefully backwards and forwards. That movement can cause a number of injuries, collectively known as whiplash, including hurting the bones in your spine or the discs between them, and damaging the ligaments, muscles and nerves in your neck.

Most people make a good recovery from whiplash within a few days or weeks. About 25% of people with whiplash find that the pain persists for much longer. This is known as chronic Whiplash Associated Disorder (cWAD).

cWAD can be quite frustrating as you may be living with ongoing pain and yet your medical tests say everything is fine. Recently though, a study found that people with cWAD may experience changes in blood flow in the areas of the brain that perceive pain and process sensory information. That might help explain why pain persists but does not show up on the usual tests

What causes whiplash?

Rear-end car accidents are one of the biggest causes of whiplash. When someone drives into the back of your car, you may be thrown forward then pulled backward, moving your neck in a way that causes whiplash.

But car accidents aren’t the only cause of whiplash. You may also suffer whiplash if someone shakes or punches you or if you endure a bad tackle or collision when playing contact sports. Some people have even ended up with whiplash after going on rides at an amusement park.

Really, anything that causes an abrupt, forceful backwards-and-forwards movement of your neck has the potential to cause whiplash.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Your neck might feel fine immediately after the incident. Whiplash symptoms don’t always appear immediately but may be noticed within the next 1-2 days.

If you have whiplash, you might experience symptoms such as:

  • A stiff and painful neck
  • Difficulty turning your neck
  • Headaches
  • Shoulder, lower back or jaw pain
  • Painful or numb arms or hands
  • Dizziness and blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Nausea
  • Finding it hard to swallow.

How do you treat whiplash?

Whiplash treatment aims to control pain, restore your neck to its normal range of motion, and allow you to get back to your usual daily activities.

  • With those goals in mind, treatment may include:
  • Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers depending on your needs
  • Relaxing your muscles by applying a heat pack or, if necessary, a muscle-relaxant medicine
  • Exercises and physiotherapy to keep your neck moving.

Try to go about your daily activities as normally as possible. Some pain and discomfort is normal at first but staying active helps your recovery from whiplash. You might need to change the way you do some things to look after your neck, such as carrying light loads only or carrying your bag on the other shoulder if it’s more comfortable.

In the past, people were often told to wear a foam collar to immobilise their neck after a whiplash injury. Now, though, we prefer you to keep moving your neck as we’ve learned that keeping your neck still can weaken your muscles and slow down your recovery. A collar may still be useful in some circumstances (such as helping you sleep at night). Your physio can advise you on whether a collar would be helpful in your case.

How can Sycamore Health help?

Physiotherapists understand the interrelated workings of the human body. This is a vital skill set for treating whiplash, which involves a cluster of related symptoms that affect your daily life.

Our skilled physiotherapists can examine you and identify the severity of your pain and its impact on your movement. By assessing your pain intensity and degree of neck disability, we can identify if you’re at risk of a delayed recovery from whiplash and initiate a treatment program to help you.

We’ll give you whiplash exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve your posture and restore your range of motion. You can see some common whiplash exercises here.

Over several sessions of treatment, we’ll give you new exercises, building on the progress you’ve made so far. As you continue to do your exercises, your neck should begin to feel better.

While everyone likes to joke about ‘a pain in the neck’, we know that neck pain can be frustrating and debilitating. We want to help you get past it. Please make an appointment to see our physios today.


All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.

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