Whiplash injury (also called neck sprain or neck strain) refers to an injury that occurs when the soft tissues in the neck become stretched and damaged (sprained). The injury is the result of forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement of the neck, like “the cracking of a whip”. Though most people recover from this injury within a few weeks, others may continue to experience pain. The type and severity of injury can vary from one person to another. Women have a higher risk of whiplash injury as their necks are not as strong as men’s.
What causes Whiplash?
Whiplash is often caused by a rear-end collision. The sudden impact causes speedy movement of the structures within the neck and changes the normal curve of the upper back and neck. The backward movement (extension) and forward movement (flexion) can injure bones in the spine, discs, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and other tissues of the neck. Whiplash can also occur due to sports accidents, slips and falls, physical abuse, or other trauma.
What are the typical symptoms?
The primary symptom of whiplash is neck or upper back pain. Signs and symptoms usually develop within 24 hours of the injury. Common symptoms include –
- Tightness or spasms of the muscles the neck or upper back
- Fatigue and dizziness
- Loss of range of motion in the neck
- Tingling or numbness in the arms
- Headaches, most often starting at the base of the skull
- Worsening of pain with neck movement
Some people also experience other additional symptoms, such as –
- Sleep disturbances
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Memory problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Blurred vision
What are the Diagnosis and Treatment Options?
As part of the diagnosis, physicians will ask you to move your head, neck and arms. Patients will be also asked to perform simple tasks so that the physician can easily determine the range of motion in the neck and shoulders, tenderness in the neck or back and the degree of motion that causes an increase in pain. Imaging tests like x-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to determine the nature of the neck injury. The treatment options recommended will be based on the evaluation of symptoms and other related factors.
Most cases of injury can be treated at home using medications, cervical collar (brace), ice or heat application or other remedies. However, if patients experience symptoms such as difficulty in moving head or arms, neck pain, numbness or tingling sensation in the arms, neck or legs and specific issues with the bladder or bowels persist, they should seek medical attention without delay. Treatment modalities offered in professional pain management centers in Brooklyn, NYC include –
- Medications – Over-the-counter pain relievers such as such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen can control mild to moderate whiplash pain.
- Physical therapy – Physical therapy exercises can help strengthen the muscles that support the neck. Stretching, strengthening and aerobic exercises help improve posture and range of motion.
- Chiropractic care – Chiropractic treatment helps loosen up the joints of the cervical vertebrae in the neck, which may help alleviate joint pain and muscle spasm. It also helps correct any spinal misalignment.
- Cervical epidural injections – These injections are administered around the epidural space to reduce inflammation and irritation around the nerves.
Recovery time can vary and is very hard to predict. Most people feel better within a few weeks or months, but sometimes the pain and other symptoms can last up to a year or more.
How can Whiplash Injury be Prevented?
- Always use a seat belt and drive motor vehicles with airbags
- If your work involves sitting in the same position all day, take regular breaks to stretch and exercise their necks.
- Practice strengthening exercises to keep your neck muscles strong and supple (if you have suffered neck strain before)
- A high enough headrest can help keep the neck from snapping backwards during a collision.