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All About Whiplash

  • Category: Spine
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Jeremy Smith, MD
All About Whiplash

Whiplash is an injury to the neck that’s caused by it being forcibly moved forward and then backward, or vice versa. We spoke with HOI’s Division Chief of Surgical Spine, Dr. Jeremy Smith, to learn more about the symptoms, treatment options and recovery for whiplash.

Q: What kind of injuries can cause whiplash?

A: The most common cause of a whiplash injury results from a rear end car accident. Any sudden backward and forward jerking motion can cause the injury. Other less common causes include assault, falls, and sports injuries.

Q: What does whiplash feel like? What are the symptoms?

A: The most common presenting symptom is mild to moderate pain and stiffness with reduced range of motion. It can cause burning and tingling in the neck that may radiate to the shoulder. Headache, dizziness, difficulty sleeping and irritability can also be prominent symptoms.

Q: Are the symptoms immediate? Or can they take a few days to develop?

A: Whiplash symptoms often present immediately but can sometimes take 24-48 hours to become apparent.

Q: What are the treatment options for whiplash? Can someone treat it on their own at home or should they see a doctor?

A: Gentle immediate range of motion and exercise, anti-inflammatory medication, icing/heating, light traction and physical therapy are the most common treatment options. If the symptoms become worse, radiate down the arm and are associated with numbness tingling or coordination change, immediately see your doctor.

Q: How long will whiplash take to heal?

A: Generally, whiplash injuries take three months to heal but can take a year or longer.

Q: Are there any individual factors that can affect how long it takes someone to recover from whiplash? Are there certain people for whom recovery might be more difficult?

A: The severity of the initial injury, coexisting trauma and a history of cervical spine pathology are the most common factors that prolong recovery from a cervical whiplash injury. Patients with pre-existing spinal disease such as degenerative disks, arthritis or stenosis often have more difficulty with recovery.

Q: Are there ever complications of whiplash? If so, what are they and how common are they?

A: Some patients experience long term complications such as continued pain, dizziness, chronic numbness or weakness.

Q: Can whiplash be mistaken for a different more serious injury? If so, what are some signs that someone may be dealing with something more serious and what should they do?

A: If there is any weakness, numbness, tingling, coordination loss or dexterity change, there might be something more than just a simple whiplash injury that needs medical attention.

Q: Can whiplash cause permanent damage? What if someone experiences many cases of whiplash over the course of their life?

A: Usually whiplash injuries do not create permanent damage. Patients who experience a large number of whiplash injuries who have baseline structural degeneration arthritis or stenosis can experience progression of their disease in the setting of a whiplash injury.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about whiplash? What do you think people should know about it?

A: Whiplash injuries can last a long time, often six months to a year or longer. They can create long term disability and severely worsen quality of life in rare circumstances.