Whiplash Injuries: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

Whiplash injuries occur when a forceful impact (commonly from behind) causes the head and neck to snap forward and back in an abrupt, violent motion. It is commonly seen in car accidents, and some contact sports, such as football, can lead to whiplash injuries.

Woman wearing a neck brace getting her shoulders rubbed

Paul Bradbury / Getty Images


Whiplash, also called cervical hyperextension injury or flexion-extension neck injury, refers to an injury to the soft tissues of the neck including the ligaments, tendons, and muscles. The symptoms of whiplash include neck pain and stiffness. Upper back and shoulder pain can also occur. Most whiplash injuries heal within weeks, but if left untreated they can linger and turn into chronic conditions that last for years and lead to pain and sometimes disability.


The most common symptoms of whiplash occur immediately or within 24 hours of the accident:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
  • Low back pain
  • Pain or numbness in the arm and/or hand
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears or blurred vision
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Irritability, sleep disturbances, fatigue


If you have a whiplash injury, it’s important to see a doctor to evaluate the extent of your injuries. Most injuries are similar to those of neck strains and include soft tissues injuries to the muscles and ligaments but whiplash can damage the cervical discs as well. A physician will often request a variety of diagnostic tests to confirm the area of injury. Sometimes CT Scans or MRI are used to determine the extent of the injury.

In the past, whiplash injuries were immobilized in a cervical collar. However, the current trend is to encourage early movement, rather than immobilization. A soft cervical collar may be worn to help support the head and relieve pressure on the neck while ligaments heal.

First aid for whiplash includes R.I.C.E. therapy (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Ice may be applied for the first 24 hours, followed by gentle active movement.

Over the counter pain medications are also helpful to reduce inflammation and pain. They are reliable and effective when used appropriately for moderate pain relief.

A visit to a physical therapist will allow you to receive a personal exercise program and treatment plan. Returning to activity is encouraged, but modifications in your previous training will likely be necessary. Low impact exercise and a great deal of flexibility work will be needed before you can return to your previous training routine.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tanaka N, Atesok K, Nakanishi K, et al. Pathology and treatment of traumatic cervical spine syndrome: whiplash injury. Adv Orthop. 2018;2018:1-6. doi:10.1155/2018/4765050

  2. North American Spine Society. Whiplash and whiplash associated disorder (WAS).

  3. Ricciardi L, Stifano V, D’Arrigo S, Polli FM, Olivi A, Sturiale CL. The role of non-rigid cervical collar in pain relief and functional restoration after whiplash injury: a systematic review and a pooled analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur Spine J. 2019;28(8):1821-1828. doi:10.1007/s00586-019-06035-9

By Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.