Whiplash Headache

Head Pain After a Car Crash

What is a Whiplash Headache?
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Have you ever experienced a headache immediately after or days following a car crash? Do you remember feeling the force of the crash, as your neck flexed forward or extended back rapidly?

This is referred to as a whiplash headache. 

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash commonly occurs during a car accident when there is a sudden and intense accelerating and/or decelerating motion of the neck causing it to flex and/or extend rapidly. Whiplash causes a strain or sprain of the neck muscles and/or ligaments, but it can also affect the vertebrae (the 7 bones in your neck), discs (the cushion between your vertebrae), or the nerves in your neck.

Symptoms such as neck and head pain may occur right after the injury or days later. Other symptoms may include:

  • Numbness and tingling sensations ( called paresthesias)
  • Limited neck range of motion of the neck
  • Neck stiffness
  • Dizziness
  • Pain that extends into the shoulders and back
  • Cognitive impairment like memory difficulties
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances

How is a Whiplash Headache Diagnosed?

In order to be diagnosed with a whiplash headache, you must have experienced a form of whiplash injury and developed the headache within seven days after that  injury.

If your injury persists for more than 3 months after the whiplash injury, it's termed a persistent headache attributed to whiplash. At this point, your doctor may also consider a medication overuse headache, as you may be taking medications for your headache that are now unfortunately causing rebound head pain. The head pain of a whiplash headache is variable, and may resemble that of a cervicogenic headache (but not always), meaning that its located on one side and towards the back of the head. 

To diagnosis your whiplash headache, your doctor will ask you questions and examine you. She might order an x-ray of your neck to check for a fracture or a MRI to more closely evaluate the injury, especially if you are having neurological symptoms like numbness.

Most of the time though, whiplash and its symptoms, like headache, are easily diagnosed. In fact, many individuals do not seek their doctor's advice and get better on their own. That being said, if you have any concerns or any warning signs, be sure to see your healthcare provider right away.

Warning signs include:

  • Your symptoms are worsening or persisting for more than 2 to 3 weeks
  • You are experiencing numbness and/or muscle weakness in your arms and/or legs
  • Your symptoms are severe enough that they are interfering with your daily functioning

Treatment of Your Whiplash Headache

The good news is that symptoms from a whiplash injury usually resolve within 2 to 3 weeks. Therapy options during this time period include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or Naproxen (Aleve)
  • Muscle Relaxants like Flexeril (Cyclobenzaprine)
  • Stretching
  • Maintaining good posture (i.e. sitting up straight with your shoulders back)
  • Avoiding carrying bags on your shoulders
  • Sleeping in a healthy position (i.e. sleeping on your back with a pillow under your thighs)

If your symptoms do not improve with these conservative measures, your doctor may recommend physical therapy and/or stronger pain medications. Cervical neck collars are somewhat controversial—they may help if used for short periods of time, but with long-term use can lead to neck muscle weakness. 

The Bottom Line

Whiplash commonly causes a headache, as well as other symptoms, like neck stiffness, fatigue, and shoulder/neck/back discomfort. Talk with your doctor if you experience whiplash and see what she recommends for your comfort.

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Article Sources
  • Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Whiplash. 
  • Sjaastad O, Fredriken T, Bakketeig L. Headache Subsequent to Whiplash. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2009;13(1):52-8.