Whiplash is an injury to the neck (specifically, the cervical spine and related tissues) caused by a rapid back and forth movement. The most common cause of whiplash is an auto accident in which a person’s car has been hit from behind, though it can also be caused by sports or other physical trauma. Technically, whiplash usually means that a strain (microscopic tearing) has occurred to the muscles and tendons in the neck, but it can also include neck sprains which means microscopic tearing of the ligamentsin the neck.
Neck Anatomy–A Closer Look
The neck is composed of the cervical spine, supporting tissues, and other important structures such as the esophagus, trachea, and thyroid. Whiplash specifically affects the supporting structures of the cervical spine: the muscles, tendons and ligaments. The cervical spine is made up of seven vertebrae, with shock-absorbing discs between each vertebra. There is a vast network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support these bones and discs and give them stability and mobility.
What Causes Whiplash Pain?
The rapid back and forth movement of a whiplash injury causes unhealthy stretching and tears in the neck structures, resulting in a loss of stability and mobility. Pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back is usually felt within 24 hours of the injury. Whiplash injuries can also cause severe headaches and numbness or tingling in the arms, hands or fingers. If a rehabilitation program is not undertaken after the tissues have started to heal, long-term chronic pain can develop due to the prolonged lack of mobility and stiffness.
Treatment for Whiplash
If you feel any of the above symptoms, you should see a doctor right away. Only a doctor has the skills and tools to rule out more serious injuries such as a cervical fracture or nerve damage. Once a whiplash diagnosis is determined, your doctor will likely recommend a course of therapy that includes ice, rest, stretching, and over-the-counter medications for pain control. Once the injury’s acute phase is over, a comprehensive exercise-based rehabilitation program should be undertaken to re-establish the normal muscle and movement patterns in the neck and to prevent chronic pain and dysfunction.
Written by Dr. Jeremy James. Dr. James founded and was director of the Aspen Club Back Institute in Aspen, Colorado, is the coauthor of the bestselling The Younger Next Year Back Book and earned his Doctor of Chiropractic from the University of Western States. Learn more about Dr. James here.