Whiplash (Neck Strain, Neck Sprain)

Overview

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is also known as neck sprain or neck strain. This common type of neck injury happens when the neck jolts backward or forward, sharply and suddenly. Whiplash due to a motor vehicle collision or another injury can strain your muscles or damage soft tissues in your neck. It can cause minor to severe symptoms, based on which neck tissues (such as ligaments and nerves) you injured and how badly.

Are whiplash and concussion the same thing?

No. Whiplash and concussion injuries are both caused by a sudden, forceful jolt. However, these injuries differ in several ways. Whiplash is a neck injury that damages soft tissues (such as ligaments or muscles). A concussion is a type of brain injury.

What does whiplash feel like?

How you feel will depend on the details of your injury, including the type of tissues affected and how seriously you were hurt.

After a whiplash injury, you may feel a dull, aching pain in the front or back of your neck (or both). Many people have a stiff neck that makes it difficult to turn your head side to side.

It’s important to note that a motor vehicle’s speed at the time of impact does not dictate how severe your symptoms are. Even if cars are moving slowly when they collide, you could still have a serious injury.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes whiplash?

Motor vehicle collisions (such as getting rear-ended) are one main cause of whiplash injuries. But you can get a whiplash injury anytime your head jerks or lurches in a sudden forward or backward motion.

Trauma due to a hard fall or sports injury may cause whiplash. So can physical abuse, such as being punched or shaken violently.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Whiplash symptoms can range widely. You may feel symptoms soon after you get hurt or days later. Healthcare providers sometimes refer to the vast collection of potential whiplash symptoms as whiplash-associated disorders (or WAD).

Symptoms often include:

  • Pain, including neck pain, back pain and shoulder pain.
  • Stiff neck that’s difficult to turn.
  • Muscle spasms (random muscle movements you can’t control).
  • Headaches.
  • Fatigue (being overly tired).
  • Anxiety or memory issues.

Does whiplash make you tired?

Whiplash affects people in many different ways. Fatigue is when your body often feels overly tired, no matter how much sleep you get. People commonly experience fatigue at some point after a whiplash injury.

Can whiplash cause neurological problems?

Occasionally, whiplash injuries may affect how your brain works. Pain can change how you process information or emotions. You may have:

  • Memory loss.
  • Problems stayed focused.
  • Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep).
  • Sudden mood changes, such as feeling nervous or depressed without knowing why.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Healthcare providers can usually diagnose whiplash by examining your symptoms and asking you questions about your injury. CT scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show details of damaged soft tissues (such as nerves or disks), though they may not always be required. Your healthcare provider may diagnose a whiplash injury with a physical exam alone.

Will whiplash show up on an MRI?

MRI imaging can show fine details of soft tissues inside the body. If you have tissue damage from whiplash, sometimes it can show up on an MRI.

Management and Treatment

How is whiplash treated?

In the past, healthcare providers recommended using a cervical collar to prevent the neck from moving after a whiplash injury. That guidance has changed.

Evolving medical research shows it can help to carefully stretch or move your sore neck muscles soon after a whiplash injury. You may be able to start gentle neck movements the next day. Follow your provider’s instructions to avoid injuring your neck further.

Other whiplash treatments include:

  • Ice or heat applied to the injury site for the first 24 hours after you hurt yourself.
  • Medication to reduce pain and swelling. Over-the-counter pain medication, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®), may help. Or your provider may prescribe muscle relaxants such as cyclobenzaprine (Amrix®, Flexeril®) or antidepressants.
  • Physical therapy, which may include exercises and stretches that slowly and safely strengthen sore neck muscles.
  • Support devices, such as a soft neck brace that comforts the neck muscles for short periods.
  • Steroid injections or lidocaine injections to put medication directly where you hurt, which may provide relief.
  • Alternative therapies, such as massage or chiropractic techniques (called spinal manipulation), focus on how the mind-body connection can promote wellness.

What are the complications of whiplash?

Most people start feeling better a few days after a whiplash injury. People usually recover fully within a few weeks. Others experience lingering pain or other symptoms months or even years later.

It’s tough to know how anyone will recover from whiplash. You may be more likely to experience long-term effects after a more severe injury (affecting multiple body parts) or intense pain.

Older adults or people with previous back or neck injuries may be more likely to have difficult-to-treat pain or challenges during recovery from whiplash.

Prevention

How can I prevent whiplash?

Whiplash usually happens suddenly and unexpectedly. That makes it hard to predict or prevent. Wearing your seat belt can protect you from more serious injuries in a car crash.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with whiplash?

Whiplash symptoms such as neck pain and stiffness usually start improving a few days to one week after you get hurt. Most people fully recover within a month. Check in with your doctor if pain or other symptoms that are long-lasting after an injury or causing you any concern.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

You should call your healthcare provider if pain or other whiplash symptoms:

  • Don’t get better after two weeks .
  • Get worse after initially starting to improve.
  • Negatively impact your life.
  • Cause you to lose interest in activities you enjoy.
  • Wake you up from sleeping.

What should I ask my healthcare provider?

If you have whiplash, you may want to ask your provider:

  • What type of neck injury do I have?
  • Do I need any imaging tests?
  • Which treatments do you recommend I try first?
  • What steps can I take at home to help my body heal?
  • When should I expect to start feeling better?
  • When can I go back to activities?
  • Can whiplash cause any serious complications?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Whiplash is a common neck injury often caused by a motor vehicle collision. Rest, along with gentle exercises and stretches soon after an injury (under your provider’s instruction), may help you heal. Most people with whiplash recover within a month. Some whiplash injuries can cause long-lasting pain or other problems. Reach out to your healthcare provider if chronic neck or back pain affects your work or personal goals.

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