Whiplash, also known as neck sprain or neck strain, is the name given to a collection of symptoms that occur when the neck jolts or snaps after an accident or injury. In a case of whiplash, the intervertebral joints (located between the vertebrae), discs, ligaments, cervical muscles, and nerve roots may become damaged. Injuries to the neck include torn ligaments, strained muscles and tendons, and herniated discs.

What causes whiplash?

Whiplash is caused by a sudden jerking motion of the head, either backward or forward. Whiplash can occur after an automobile accident, fall, sports injury, or other sudden jolt of the head, which causes soft tissue injury to the neck. The extent and type of injuries vary greatly.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Symptoms of whiplash may not appear until one or two days after the injury. When symptoms occur, they include:

  • pain and stiffness in the front and back of the neck (the pain may get worse when turning the head to the right or left)
  • headaches
  • pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
  • low back pain
  • pain or numbness in the arm and/or hand
  • jaw pain
  • dizziness
  • ringing in the ears
  • blurred vision
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • irritability
  • sleep disturbances and fatigue
  • depression
  • memory loss
  • trouble swallowing
  • nausea
  • a tingling sensation in the shoulders or arms

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Generally, whiplash can be diagnosed clinically by a thorough history and physical exam by your doctor. In most cases of whiplash, injuries are to soft tissues such as discs, muscles, and ligaments, and cannot be seen on X-rays. Specialized imaging tests, such as CT scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may be needed to accurately diagnose whiplash, but are not required for the diagnosis.

How is whiplash treated?

In the past, whiplash injuries were often treated with immobilization (preventing the neck from moving) in a cervical collar. However, the current treatment is to encourage early movement instead of immobilization.

Ice may be applied for the first 24 hours after the trauma, followed by gentle active movement. Other treatments for whiplash include:

  • anti-inflammatory medications such as Motrin or Aleve
  • muscle relaxants
  • antidepressants
  • exercises
  • stretching
  • physical therapy
  • traction exercises
  • massage
  • heat
  • injections
  • electrical nerve stimulation with a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit
  • chiropractic spinal manipulation

What is the prognosis (outlook) for someone who has whiplash?

Symptoms of whiplash usually go away after a few weeks or a month. If the pain and symptoms have not improved within three months, the person should see his or her doctor.


© Copyright 1995-2016 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 12/12/2014...#11982