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What is... whiplash?

· 3 min read

Part of the "What is...?" series

We commonly associate whiplash injuries with car accidents or collisions, but whiplash can occur any time your head moves suddenly, such as a fall where the head is jolted backwards, or as an sporting injury in a contact sport like rugby.

Unlike more serious injuries, like a fracture, the pain of whiplash may not develop for a day or two after the initial injury. But the pain that develops from it can be debilitating, because it often causes severe stiffness, spasms, neck pain and headaches.

Types of whiplash#

Whiplash falls into two categories:

  1. Simple whiplash - this is due to sprains and strains in the soft tissue of the neck which happened at the moment of impact
  2. Stingers/Burners - where the nerves in the neck and shoulder are also damaged leading to tingling, numbness, pins and needles and/or pain in the arm

For the vast majority of people, the pain from whiplash is manageable and the whiplash will resolve by itself. In these circumstances the best thing to do is get some rest, use gentle heat on the area and take paracetemol.

It's very important in the immediate aftermath of a whiplash injury to keep the neck moving as much as possible. Under no circumstances should it be immobilised in a brace or collar.

If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember this:

Got that? Ok.


Chronic whiplash#

For some people, however, whiplash can become a chronic condition, where the pain persists even after the initial injury has healed. This can make day to day living difficult, and can even lead to depression due to the chronic pain. In situations like these having some treatment, such as chiropractic treatment, can be very helpful.

The truth is that we don't really know what the factors are that predict whether someone will have chronic pain or recover quickly from whiplash, but it seems to be some combination of the following:

  • How emotionally traumatic the original event was
  • How painful the initial onset of whiplash was

But it doesn't seem to be correlated with:

  • How bad the initial accident was, eg. if the car was rear-ended or rolled into a ditch
  • Whether or not you claimed for your treatment on insurance
  • Whether you had "simple whiplash" or a "stinger/burner"
  • How quickly you got treatment for it

Because of this I usually recommend that you continue with your normal day-to-day life as much as possible for at least 3 weeks. If your pain or stiffness have not improved at that point, or the headaches become unbearable, or it is affecting your sleep, then make an appointment to see me and we will get right on top of it.

And remember, don't use a neck brace!

See other posts in the "What is...?" series