Common Whiplash Questions and Answers: Everything You Need to Know

If you’ve suffered whiplash, you may have a lot of questions about what to expect on your road to recovery. What should you do for whiplash treatment? How long will it take to heal? Does it take longer to heal without treatment?

We have compiled information that answers many of the common questions you may have about whiplash, its treatment, and recovery.

What is whiplash?

We commonly think of whiplash as being caused by an automobile accident. However, while that is a common way to suffer whiplash, many people experience whiplash from contact sports. Whiplash is actually a neck strain caused by any impact or blow which causes the neck to jerk forward or backward. This impact or blow causes the muscles and tendons in the neck to stretch or tear.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Symptoms can range from mild to serious. At a mild level, you may have neck pain, stiffness, or tenderness. While a more serious case would include a fracture or dislocation. Some symptoms can appear immediately while others may take hours or days to appear.

Here are some of the possible symptoms that accompany whiplash:

  • Pain when moving your head
  • Neck stiffness
  • Neck instability
  • Headaches at the base of the skull that radiate to the forehead
  • Tightness in the neck
  • Limited range of motion
  • Muscles feel hard or knotted
  • Tenderness
  • Shoulder pain
  • Upper back pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Radiating tingling or weakness
  • Numbness in your arm or hand
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional changes
  • Challenges with chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of Memory
  • Trouble Concentrating

What should you do if you suspect you have whiplash?

It’s always a good idea to go get checked out by a doctor if you suspect you have whiplash. Sometimes whiplash can be treated at home with over-the-counter pain management and applying ice. Symptoms aren’t always immediately obvious, but if you have any pain or stiffness in the neck, it’s important to be seen by a doctor.

Even if you feel ok after an accident or event that forces your neck forward and backward, you should still be seen by a doctor. When the body is subjected to a forceful impact or blow, it sometimes goes into a state of shock that dulls the sensation of pain. This is called the “late whiplash syndrome”- symptoms can sometimes appear weeks or months after the trauma. You don’t want to do anything that will cause even more damage, simply because you didn’t realize you were injured.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

When you go to the doctor to be examined for whiplash, you can expect the doctor to go over your complete medical history and perform a physical exam. The doctor will ask questions to determine the severity of your symptoms as well as if they are affecting your day-to-day life.

The doctor may choose to prescribe an X-ray be taken to check for any fractures or dislocations. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may be taken to check for any soft tissue damage. A CT (computed tomography) scan may be taken for a more detailed view of your bones and muscles.

The doctor will examine the results and determine if you have whiplash or not. After examining the results, the doctor can provide a course of treatment if it is needed.

What is the treatment for whiplash?

The goal of whiplash treatment is to control your pain and symptoms, make sure you regain normal range of motion in your neck, and rehabilitation to your day-to-day activities. What to do for whiplash treatment will depend upon a variety of factors including your current health, age, medical history, the severity of your whiplash, your tolerance, and even your personal opinions and preferences.

Some of the common treatments of whiplash include:

  • Applying ice
  • Rest
  • Wearing a neck brace
  • Over-the-counter pain medication
  • Prescription pain medication
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Lidocaine injection (numbing medicine)
  • Massage
  • Ultrasound
  • Neck stretches
  • Physical therapy
  • Osteopathic manipulation
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic care

It is also important to note that sometimes psychotherapy is needed to treat psychological conditions that are a result of the accident or event that occurred which caused the whiplash. Some people experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or depression following a severe accident. Seeking help for mental health is just as important as seeking help for your physical wellbeing.

Why shouldn’t heat be used in whiplash treatment?

You may have noticed that applying ice was listed as a possible treatment for whiplash, but applying heat was not. The reason for this is that applying heat can actually make matters worse. The heat will make the swelling and pain worse.

How long does whiplash take to heal with treatment?

How long it takes for whiplash to heal so that you no longer experience symptoms depends upon the severity of the injury. Your age can also have an effect on recovery time- the older you are, the longer it will take to recover. Because women tend to have smaller structures and muscles in the neck, this can make them more susceptible to whiplash injuries and take longer to recover.

Typically, whiplash can get better within a couple of days for mild cases. For severe cases, it could take months or years to recover. Occasionally, symptoms such as frequent headaches can last forever.

How long does whiplash take to heal WITHOUT treatment?

As previously mentioned, it’s important to see a doctor after experiencing a trauma that you suspect could cause whiplash– even if you don’t have any symptoms yet. If you have whiplash and do not receive treatment, you could be left with persistent pain that could last weeks, months, years, or even for the rest of your life. If you have very minor injuries that are limited to soft tissues only, you could heal within about six to ten weeks.

However, having whiplash can turn into problems in other areas of your body. Because of the stress of the tissues, you could experience spine misalignments which will result in pain and discomfort throughout the body.

What is the fastest way to recover from whiplash?

Recovering from whiplash isn’t something you can speed up, it will take time for your body to heal. However, there are some things you can do to help the healing process. Applying an ice pack for 15 minutes each hour can help to reduce the swelling of the muscles and ligaments in the neck. Make sure to wrap the ice in a towel to protect your skin.

Gently moving your neck can help prevent stiffness. Only do this if your doctor has given you approval, this isn’t something you’d want to do if you’ve suffered a fracture.

Avoid heavy lifting of any kind. Something as simple as carrying a backpack over the shoulder can put excess stress on an already injured neck and shoulder muscles.

How can physical therapy help whiplash recovery?

A doctor may recommend physical therapy if you have ongoing issues with pain or are still experiencing range-of-motion problems after a period of time. Physical therapists can work with you to strengthen the muscles and mobility of your neck. Physical therapy can also help you improve posture, which can have a significant impact on pain.

Can a physiatrist help with whiplash recovery?

A physiatrist can help patients who are experiencing chronic pain for any reason, including whiplash. The physiatrist can prescribe pain medications and an overall rehabilitation plan, including referring you to a physical therapist who can help with the hands-on exercises to strengthen the neck and improve mobility.

Can whiplash be prevented?

Accidents happen and there is nothing we can do about it, unfortunately. But there are some steps that you should always take to ensure your safety. In any case, taking care of your body and being in good shape helps you avoid whiplash and if you do have whiplash, you will more than likely heal faster.

While driving or riding in an automobile, the most obvious preventative measure you can take is to wear a seat belt. Make sure that your headrest is correctly adjusted and not too low. Sit in an upright position and avoid sitting in a reclined position in the vehicle. Driving a large vehicle lessens the momentum in a collision and can help you avoid whiplash. Of course, don’t drive too close to the car in front of you. If you can see a crash coming, try to lean your head against the headrest and look forward in a neutral position- this can help you avoid injury in some cases.

For athletes, make sure to wear protective equipment and learn good techniques to avoid neck injuries. Even if the athlete is not directly injured, the force of a tackle or blow can be enough to cause whiplash. Play with proper form and keep the head up for tackles or collisions. Whatever you do, do not continue playing the sport if you suspect you may have suffered whiplash or any neck injury. Be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.