How to Recover From Whiplash Injury

Treatment and Diagnosis of Whiplash Injury

X-ray of human head showing neck contortion
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Whiplash, a much bandied-about term, describes what happens to your neck when you are struck from behind or from the side by another vehicle while driving or riding in your car.  Whiplash may be caused by things other than motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) as well.  Examples include diving accidents and shaken baby syndrome.

Symptoms of whiplash can take a few days to show up; the fact you don't feel pain immediately after a whiplash does not necessarily mean you're out of the woods. 

In the days following a whiplash impact, your neck or back muscles may become stiff and sore. After that, your body's response can vary. Symptoms may subside within a few days, or they may persist.

More specifically, symptoms can include pain or stiffness in your neck, upper back and/or shoulders, and you may get headaches. You may also experience nerve sensations that go down one arm. Examples of these type of symptoms include, pins and needles, tingling, electrical shock sensations and/or burning.

Other possible symptoms include upper limb numbness, dizziness, blurred vision, vertigo, difficulty swallowing and/or fatigue.

Damage Done by Whiplash

The damage caused by whiplash mostly affects your soft tissues and joints, although depression or other mood disorders may accompany this condition.

The term "soft tissue" refers to muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Joints are the areas where adjacent bones meet in order to allow for movement of the body to occur, as well as for the forces of movement to be transferred through the body. The latter affects, in general, your posture, body alignment and ability to function physically without pain.

According to a 2014 article published in the journal Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain in about 60% whiplash cases, the damage done is to the facet joints, especially at C2-3 and at C5-6. 

Some lucky people sustain no damage at all from a whiplash event.  Of those whiplash cases that do cause problems, the rate of recovery can be variable, but 3-6 months is standard for many patients.

Chronic whiplash is the presence of symptoms for longer than three months.

How Whiplash is Treated

It's recommended that you see a doctor after any car accident. In the acute and sub-acute phases, which generally last up to 3 months post incident, treatment may consist of physical therapy, non-opioid pain medications, and education from your medical providers. 

After three months, you're considered chronic. At this point, multi-disciplinary pain management may help you. For any accompanying mood disorders, you may consider cognitive behavior therapy, which is a short term therapy that teaches you how to keep a realistic perspective on pain and symptoms, including managing  triggers.

What Can You Do for Yourself Following a Whiplash Injury?

Perhaps the best thing you can do for a whiplash is to keep your body moving.

Now, this doesn't mean you should go out and shoot hoops with the guys the day after your injury, but it also doesn't mean staying in bed. Movement is good for the body; the key is to do it in doses that "feel right" and above all, don't cause pain. The Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain study mentioned above, which is a compilation of evidence-based best practices, recommends early mobilization and getting back to normal activities as soon as feasible.

As far as early mobilization is concerned, do remember that you are likely injured. Working with a physical therapist may be the safest and most effective way to achieve early mobilization.

3 Self Care Tips for Managing Your Whiplash Injury

  1. See a physical therapist for a home program, and do your exercises as prescribed. Along with helping you learning how to move safely, being faithful to an exercise program may help you conquer stiffness, as well as build the neck muscle strength necessary for supporting your head in proper alignment.
  2. Watch out for bad posture habits, in other words, those positional shifts your body makes in response to pain or decreased physical capacity. While moves and positions that reduce pain may help in the short-term, if they are not biomechanically sound, over the long haul they may create more pain and functional limitation.  Again, a physical therapist can help you here.
  3. While at work, try to move and switch positions as much as you can. Walk over to a colleague's desk rather than call, for example.  This may help you use your muscles more equally as well as give them a break before they become overused.  You might also consider switching from one type of task to another (and then back again) if your job permits.
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    Article Sources
    • Jull, G. Whiplash Injury Recovery: A Self-Management Guide. University of Queensland Austrailia. 
    • Tameen, A., MD, et. al. Whiplash Injury Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain. August 2014.