What is a Whiplash Injury?

By Louis Corpora DPT, PT

Whiplash Injury

What is a Whiplash Injury?

The quick answer, whiplash injury is a neck injury resulting from a forceful back then forward motion of the head/neck.  Typically due to a force coming from behind the head.  This event is most common in rear-end motor vehicle accidents. Although not quite as common, whiplash injuries may occur in sports such as a boxer being struck or a football player tackle from behind.

x-ray image of neck

What is a Whiplash Injury?

Symptoms from a Whiplash Injury 

Depending on the severity of the injury, whiplash can have a variety of symptoms. These include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Memory loss.
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and hands.
  • Cervicogenic or neck-related headaches.
  • Pain with neck movement.
  • Unwillingness to move the neck due to pain.

Causes/Risk Factors of a Whiplash Injury

Whiplash can affect and injure a variety of structures depending on the mechanism and location of the blow. Muscles, bones, ligaments, and nerves may be compromised in the neck. Therefore, a whiplash injury involves the head and neck rapidly and forcefully thrown from backward to forward, it can have a multitude of causes. The most common causes are:

  • Auto accidents (being hit from the year).
  • Abuse or assault.
  • Contact sports (being tackled, hit from behind, or blind-sided).

Symptoms of whiplash typically diminish within weeks. In other cases, some have pain that lasts for months or even years. Ultimately, every whiplash case is different and is hard to forecast their outcome. Outcomes are usually worse if the symptoms were more severe and radiating into the arms and hands as seen with a nerve compromise in the neck. Some risk factors that bode unfavorably are:

  • Elderly.
  • Pre-existing neck pain.
  • High-speed accident.

Diagnosis of Whiplash 

Diagnosing whiplash starts with a series of questions from the doctor. These questions will include the mechanism of injury, symptoms, and ability to perform activities of daily living. The doctor will typically do neurological screen testing reflexes, sensation, and upper extremity strength. He or she will also assess neck motion, checking the ability to move the head in different directions.

Finally, X-rays are going to identify fractures or dislocations. MRI will reveal harm to the ligaments, discs, or spinal cord.

Whiplash Injury Treatment

female Whiplash patient with Injury being treated with medical massage therapy

Medical massage treatment for whiplash

The treatment plan depends on the severity of the injury which may vary from over-the-counter medications to prescription medication. If the condition is mild, the patient may manage it at home. In more serious cases, the patient may be go to physical therapy or use a neck collar.

Usually, if the injury is to the upper neck vertebrae (C1 & C2) and emergency surgery is not necessary, the patient will be placed in a neck collar to allow for healing. This is due to the risk of spinal cord injury or compromise. A critical ligament attaches to C1 and is the transverse ligament. This ligament can be ruptured with a rapid forceful motion of the head forward like in whiplash. If this ligament is torn, the compression of spinal cord can occur.  If not identified right away, this may result from permanent neurological damage of the arms, trunk, and legs. That’s why it’s important to take extreme precautions if C1 and C2 injuries.  In other words, seek out medical care right away.

If patients are high risk and have C1 and C2 damage, the patient will likely be in a collar and not start physical therapy.  Wear the collar until proper healing occurs and cleared from the doctor. Once cleared, the patient will probably have poor neck motion and strength due to being in the collar.

Physical Therapy for a Whiplash Injury.

Even if they were not in a collar, motion and strength will still likely be affected. No case of whiplash or neck pain is the same. The physical therapist will evaluate the patient’s neck motion, reflexes, sensation, and upper extremity strength. The therapist then will create a plan of care based on the unique exam findings of the patient. In conclusion, the patient should expect to get back to activities of daily living after 4-6 weeks of physical therapy.

JOI Fracture and Injury Care

JOI Physicians are currently offering ASAP fracture and injury care. This is a new option for patients who would like to avoid the emergency room if they have suffered a fracture or soft tissue injury.  Finally, to make an appointment, please call  (904)JOI-2000.

Book An Appointment with a JOI Physician.

Image of Book An Appointment with a JOI Physician Button.By: Louis Corpora DPT, PT


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