Whiplash is an injury that happens when sudden force or movement strains your neck and spine, damaging bone, muscle, ligaments and nerves. It’s most common in motor vehicle crashes, but can also happen for other reasons. It’s usually treatable and short-lived. However, some people experience chronic effects such as pain for months or even years.
Whiplash is a condition that happens when sudden movement changes force your neck (cervical spine) and upper spine to move in ways that cause injury. This causes a form of neck sprain.
Whiplash refers to a single concept but can have a wide range of effects. Experts refer to conditions that happen due to whiplash as “whiplash-associated disorders.” Whiplash can also happen with sudden movement changes in any direction.
Because it involves a neck injury, first responders and medical personnel will often treat whiplash as an emergency condition. Healthcare providers will also approach it with extreme caution until they can confirm, treat and stabilize a dangerous injury, or rule out that kind of injury.
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Whiplash can affect anyone at any age, but is more likely to cause serious or lasting injuries in two groups: older adults and women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB). It’s more serious in older adults (over age 65) because they’re typically more prone to muscle and bone injuries of any kind. That’s usually due to age-related muscle and bone deterioration and weakening.
Women and people AFAB are more likely to have whiplash-type injuries in car crashes, which may be due to several factors:
Whiplash is fairly common, affecting millions of people worldwide each year.
Whiplash happens because of how one law of physics, the law of inertia, affects the human body. Think about what it’s like to be in a moving car when the driver suddenly steps on the brakes. Inertia is why your body keeps moving forward even though the car is stopping. Inertia is also why you press back into your seat if the driver suddenly steps on the gas and goes from a complete stop to rapid acceleration.
Just like you’re a passenger in the car in the above analogy, your brain is a passenger in your skull. Sharp, sudden movements can cause your brain to smack against the inside of your skull, causing injury to your brain. That’s why your neck is like a shock absorber for your head, naturally compressing, extending or twisting to minimize the effect of sudden movements on your brain.
Whiplash happens when inertia causes your head, neck and body to move at different speeds. That forces your neck to compress or extend too quickly or in ways that push the muscles, ligaments and bones of your spine beyond what they can tolerate.
The sharper and stronger the movement, the greater the force on your neck. That’s why whiplash injuries can range from minor to severe. However, even weak levels of force can still cause moderate or severe whiplash. Experts don’t fully understand why this happens, but research is ongoing. At its worst, whiplash can break the vertebrae in your neck, creating a risk of damage to your spinal cord and its network of connected nerves.
The symptoms of whiplash depend on how severe the whiplash was and how severely your neck hyperextended or compressed. The greater the extension or compression, the greater the injury.
A key part of whiplash symptoms is the timing. Some symptoms of whiplash may begin immediately after a crash, while others take at least 12 hours to appear. Sometimes, it may take a full day or even a few days for all the symptoms to show up.
Because whiplash can have various effects, experts created a grading system for the severity of whiplash-associated disorders. Known as the Quebec Classification of Whiplash-Associated Disorders, this grading system (with more details about each grade immediately below) is as follows:
At this level, a person with whiplash doesn’t feel any pain or show any signs or symptoms of injury.
This level of whiplash is the first one where a person feels pain. They’ll also show:
This is the first level where a person shows pain and other symptoms from Grade 1, plus physical signs of an injury. The pain also can also have different effects from Grade 1. The symptoms of Grade 2 whiplash include.
Grade 3 whiplash involves neurological symptoms. These happen because swelling or inflammation disrupts nerve signals traveling through the injured area on the way to or from your brain.
These symptoms include:
This is the highest level of whiplash-associated disorders. These usually involve all of the above symptoms, especially neurological ones, but they’re more severe. When neurological symptoms are more severe, that can indicate at least one neck vertebra has a fracture or is out of alignment or shifting out of place, putting pressure on your spinal cord or nearby nerves.
Whiplash happens when your movement speed or the direction you’re traveling suddenly changes. Some of the most common events or activities that can lead to whiplash include:
While the above are the most common possible causes, whiplash can happen in many other ways. Even simple slips and falls can cause whiplash under the right circumstances
Whiplash is a diagnosis of exclusion. That means healthcare providers make the diagnosis after ruling out more serious conditions that need immediate treatment or other possible causes. Ruling out those other conditions involves a combination of diagnostic tests, imaging scans, physical and neurological examinations, and more. Healthcare providers also ask you questions about your symptoms and any events that could have caused the whiplash, especially car crashes.
There are several possible tests, most of them imaging scans, that can help a provider rule out other conditions or issues and diagnose whiplash, including:
Whiplash is treatable, but there’s no way to cure it directly. Instead, the goal of treatment is to allow whiplash to heal as much as possible on its own while supporting that healing process and minimizing symptoms. Some people may also need care for chronic issues that happen because of whiplash.
Some treatments for whiplash are most helpful right after an injury, while others are best if used to treat the long-term effects and chronic problems from a whiplash injury. Some can do both. The most common treatments for whiplash (with more about them below) include:
Because whiplash can affect your spine and spinal cord, it’s common for people with possible neck and spine injuries to receive some forms of protective care immediately. An example is a cervical collar (C-collar), which emergency medical personnel can put on a person’s neck at the scene of a car crash.
A C-collar has a rigid frame that holds your head and neck in alignment, so your vertebrae don’t press on or damage your spinal cord. That also helps keep your neck muscles from bearing the weight of your head, which might be very painful if your neck muscles are injured.
There are also other forms of immobilization. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you about the available forms and which form they recommend.
Medications are a major part of whiplash treatment, helping address many of the symptoms. Because there are many symptoms, many different types of medication can help. The most common kinds of medications providers prescribe to treat whiplash include:
Many other kinds of medications are also possible. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you about the available medication options they recommend.
Experts recommend using cold packs during the first seven to 10 days to decrease swelling and inflammation. After that, gentle warmth and heating can help improve blood flow to an injured area, which helps promote the healing of damaged tissues.
Recovering from whiplash can often involve physical therapy. This form of treatment uses guided exercises to strengthen injured areas after they heal. That can help you regain more function in the affected area and can also help ease related symptoms like pain.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS for short, is a therapy that delivers a mild electrical current through your skin to surface nerve endings. Your nerves use electrical signals to communicate, so using an outside electrical current at low levels can help with pain in those areas. Using a TENS unit to ease the pain is much like using white noise to help you block out other sounds while you sleep.
One way to treat chronic pain is to stop the nerves in the affected area from sending pain signals. This is especially helpful when an injury leads to nerve damage, making the affected nerves send pain signals more than they should. This treatment uses RF energy to heat the targeted nerves and intentionally damage them, so they stop sending pain signals. This can reduce pain for weeks or months.
In rare cases, an injury from whiplash — especially torn ligaments or fractured vertebrae — need surgery. Spine surgery can stabilize the affected areas of your spine, preventing further nerve damage and pain.
The possible complications and side effects of whiplash treatments vary widely. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you about the complications and side effects that you can expect.
When whiplash is minor, especially in Grade 1 or Grade 2, it’s usually something you can manage on your own. Cold followed by heat, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or pain medications, and rest are often enough to help you recover. But it’s best to see a healthcare provider if the pain is moderate or doesn’t get better with at-home remedies. Pain that doesn’t get better is a sign of a more serious injury.
You shouldn’t try to take care of whiplash injuries on your own if the event that caused your whiplash also involved you passing out or losing consciousness. You also shouldn’t try to manage it on your own if you show any signs of nerve-related problems.
Passing out, dizziness and vertigo, headaches, tingling, numbness, weakness or trouble swallowing or speaking are all signs that you need to see a healthcare provider as soon as you can, as these are also signs of a concussion or traumatic brain injury, both of which can be dangerous.
The time it takes to recover from whiplash depends on the treatments themselves, as well as factors like the cause of your whiplash, personal circumstances, health history and more. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the likely timeline for you to feel better and recover.
You can do several things to reduce your risk of developing whiplash. Unfortunately, it happens unpredictably, so there’s no way to prevent it entirely. The best things you can do to reduce your risk include:
Most people with whiplash, especially lower grades, can recover within days or a few weeks. More severe whiplash can take several weeks or even months to heal.
Whiplash lasts longest when complications lead to chronic pain or inflammation in and around your spine. The timeline for recovery from chronic complications of whiplash can vary widely, so a healthcare provider is the best source of info on what you can expect in your specific case.
Whiplash is often a minor concern, causing pain, soreness or stiffness but no long-term effects. When it’s more severe, whiplash can cause long-term pain and complications. In the most extreme cases, whiplash can cause severe spinal injuries that can be permanently disabling or deadly. However, these are also extremely rare thanks to advancements in safety equipment and engineering, especially in motor vehicles.
In situations where you have whiplash that lasts more than a few days, or if the pain or other symptoms are disrupting your regular routine and activities, you should see a healthcare provider as soon as you can.
You need emergency medical care if you have any nerve-related symptoms of whiplash. This includes any kind of muscle weakness, numbness or tingling below your neck, as well as headaches or vision problems.
The best treatment for whiplash depends on many factors. The severity of your injury, what caused it and your medical history can all play a role. Treating your symptoms and not straining yourself and making the injury worse might be all it takes for minor whiplash.
You should see a healthcare provider sooner rather than later for more severe injuries. The longer you wait, the more likely you’ll develop a chronic complication that could linger for months or even years.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Whiplash is a common injury that happens when a sudden movement change puts too much force on your head, neck and body. That causes those body parts to move at slightly different speeds and with subtle differences in direction, straining and damaging bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves in your head, neck and upper back.
Most people can recover from whiplash within days or weeks, but chronic problems can last for months or even years. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat this problem. While most work best when used sooner rather than later, there are still ways to treat chronic pain and other issues that happen because of whiplash.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/29/2022.
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