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Whiplash Injury

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is an injury to your neck. It is caused by your neck bending forcibly forward and then backward, or vice versa. The injury, which is poorly understood, usually involves the muscles, discs, nerves, and tendons in your neck.

What causes whiplash?

Most whiplash injuries result from a collision that includes sudden acceleration or deceleration. Many whiplash injuries occur when you are involved in a rear-end automobile collision. They also happen as a result of a sports injury, particularly during contact sports.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Following are the most common symptoms of whiplash. However, you may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Neck pain
  • Neck stiffness
  • Shoulder pain
  • Low back pain
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in your arm and/or hand
  • Numbness in your arm and/or hand
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Blurred vision
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Sleeplessness
  • Tiredness

The symptoms of whiplash may resemble other conditions and medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for whiplash may include the following. Many whiplash injuries include damage to soft tissue that can't be seen on X-rays:

  • X-ray. Invisible electromagnetic energy beams produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A combination of large magnets and a computer produce detailed images of organs and soft tissue structures within your body.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan.  A combination of X-rays and computer technology produces horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of your body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of your body, including your bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

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How is whiplash treated?

Your health care provider will determine specific treatment for whiplash, based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of your injury
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of your injury
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Ice applications for the first 24 hours
  • Cervical collar
  • Gentle, active movement after 24 hours
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Muscle relaxing medications
  • Physical therapy

What are the complications of whiplash injury?

While most people who experience a whiplash injury recover within a few weeks to a few months, you may have persistent pain for several months or longer.

When should I call my health care provider?

If your symptoms have not improved within the time frame your health care provider suggested, you should let him or her know. Also, if your symptoms get worse or you get new symptoms, tell your provider.

Key points

Whiplash injury is poorly understood, but usually involves the muscles, discs, nerves, and tendons in your neck.

  • It is caused by the neck bending forcibly forward and then backward, or vice versa.
  • Many whiplash injuries occur if you are involved in a rear-end automobile collision.
  • Symptoms of whiplash may resemble other conditions and medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.
  • Your health care provider will determine specific treatment for your whiplash.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.