Whiplash Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is a term used to describe injuries to the neck following sudden distortion of the neck that is mainly seen with motor vehicle accidents. The medical term ‘cervical acceleration-deceleration’ is used to refer to the mechanism by which whiplash injury is sustained and the term whiplash is used to describe the symptoms of the injury and the complications.

The most common symptom of whiplash is pain in the neck along with stiffness. In most of the cases the symptoms usually disappear within months but depending upon the severity of injury, symptoms may lead to chronic long standing back pain. Common treatments include pain killers like NSAIDs, application of ice pack on the neck, exercise and use of a cervical support collar to support the neck.

Whiplash Symptoms

The symptoms of whiplash usually start to appear within 24 hours and include :

  • Pain and stiffness of the neck along with headache especially at the base of the skull.
  • Dizziness, light headedness and blurring of vision.
  • Pain of the neck may radiate to other body parts like the lower back, shoulder, arms and legs along with tingling and numbness.
  • Chronic pain may lead to difficulty concentrating, poor memory, irritability, sleep disturbances and poor performance at the work place.
  • Ringing in the ears.

Usually symptoms are relieved within a month or two but it may take years for some patients to recover. Symptoms may persist as chronic pain in the neck or in the lower back with even restricted movement of the neck or limbs.

Causes of Whiplash

The exact cause of whiplash is not known, however, there are number are hypotheses regarding its cause. The most popular theory is involuntary and impulsive stretching of the muscles and ligaments of the spine with impact. This leads to a sudden backward and forward jerking or snapping movement of the head. Whiplash usually occurs with a motor vehicle accident but other conditions like head banging as in physical violence especially in child abuse, contact sports like football, fall from stools, bicycle or horses may lead to symptoms of whiplash.

Whiplash is the most common type of injuries following motor vehicle accident. In some cases whiplash may be associated with injury to the brain. Usually neck muscles like the trapezius and supraspinatus muscles are most commonly affected. Severe cases of whiplash injury may lead to paralysis of all four limbs depending upon the severity of damage to the ligaments, tendons and discs. In most of the cases the site of injury is between C5 and C6.

Whiplash Treatment

Common treatment options include intake of painkillers like NSAIDs, muscle relaxants to relax the strained neck muscles and locally acting anesthetics like lidocaine to relieve the muscle spasm. Physical therapy is also prescribed in many cases by using an ice pack, heat, ultrasonic rays and stretching exercises to strengthen the neck muscles. Soft foam neck collars are prescribed sometimes to immobilize the neck which helps in relief of pain. Use of collars in the night may help with relief of pain.

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