What Happens With Whiplash Injuries?

In the grand scheme of car accident injuries, whiplash is often overlooked. However, whiplash can be severe and lead to long-term discomfort or pain if not addressed properly.

Whiplash is most commonly associated with rear-end car accidents. If rear-ended (or involved in another type of car accident), the head suddenly moves backward and forward. According to the Mayo Clinic, this sudden acceleration-deceleration force push the muscles and ligaments in the neck beyond their normal range of motion.

If you are experiencing neck pain after a car accident, consult a doctor as soon as possible. Even if the pain seems mild, it is important to ensure there are no severe internal injuries to the neck, head, or rest of the body. If no other serious injuries exist, your doctor can proceed based on your level of pain.

Whiplash can vary from mild discomfort to severe and lasting pain. Whiplash is often treated with over-the-counter pain medication, ice, and rest for the affected muscles. Many people recover from whiplash in a manner of weeks, but more severe cases require more long-term solutions. Chronic pain or lasting effects from whiplash are often treated with prescription medication and physical therapy.

The symptoms of whiplash usually appear within 24 hours of the accident. Possible symptoms include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches (often at the base of the skull)
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbances

The trauma of a car accident can lead to severe internal injuries, so be sure to contact your doctor if the pain spread to your arms or shoulders, it becomes painful to move your head, or you experience numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms. These symptoms could be indicative of a more serious condition.

There is no universal treatment or course of action for whiplash—most cases depend on the doctor’s perception of the severity of the injury. Medical professionals in the past used soft cervical collars to limit the range of motion of the neck for several weeks and prevent further injury; however, collars have proven less than effective and can actually hinder the healing process. Your doctor may recommend range of motion exercises, immobilization, rest, pain medication, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

Whiplash has also been linked to several psychological or emotional symptoms, including depression, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, drug dependency, post-traumatic stress disorder, and insomnia. These cases, usually more severe and chronic, can indicate “whiplash associated disorder.”

The term “whiplash” was first used back in 1928; a similar condition called “railway spine” was associated with train accidents in the 1800s and 1900s. Although many whiplash injuries resolve quickly and do not leave lasting damage, more serious cases can cause partial disability. Whiplash can cost the U.S. up to $30 billion per year in medical care, disability, sick leave, lost productivity, and legal costs.

Even in unpreventable car accidents, there are certain steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of whiplash during a collision. Make sure the headrest is positioned directly behind the head and seat belts are worn in the car to reduce the impact of the acceleration-deceleration force.