Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, MD, FFARCSI

Whiplash and Neck Strain: Brief Overview

Neck strain is often medically termed as whiplash. It's normally associated with car accidents; however any shock or blow that causes head to jerk backward and then forward can cause whiplash. The sudden force creates extended stretches tearing the muscles or tendons of the neck. Whiplash also afflicts athletes. People who play contact sports like football and boxing are especially prone to whiplash along with car accident victims.

Whiplash should not be confused with neck sprains. They're a bit different. Neck strains or whiplash are caused by damage to the muscle or tendons, and tissues that connect muscles to bones in the neck. Neck sprains, on the other hand are caused by tearing of the ligaments- the tissues that attach the bones to each other.

What is Whiplash Injury?

Whiplash is a most common form of neck injury that occurs to an individual following an unexpected strenuous movement of neck and head causing tremendous pressure on neck and back muscles that often lead to tearing of tissues, tendons and muscles.

What Does Whiplash Feel Like?

Whiplash leads to neck or upper back pain. The pain can start at any moment – sometimes immediately, but in many occasion it develops after days, weeks, or even months. Intensity of pain and period of occurrence vary widely from individual to individual. Some may suffer minor uneasiness while many others experience one or more of the following problems:

  • Stiffness or spasms of the muscles in the neck and upper back.
  • Mild to severe pain during movement of the neck, accompanied by headache and dizziness.
  • Difficulty in swallowing and chewing with hoarseness of voice. This is an indication of injury to the esophagus and larynx.
  • Abnormal sensations in neck and upper back such as burning or stinging.
  • Mild to severe shoulder pain.

Whiplash can also include injuries to the discs, ligaments, cervical muscles, intervertebral joints, and nerve of the neck or upper back.

How Does Whiplash Happen?

Road accident is the most common reason of whiplash because the sudden stopping force of the collision with another vehicle or any fixed body like a pillar or lamp post makes the head move forward and backward. Whiplash can develop from accident taking place from any direction- front, back or side. Low speed collisions can also cause whiplash. In other words, everything depends on the severity of the force that causes sudden jerk on the neck. This same reason is also applicable for contact sports like boxing, rugby or football. A sudden slip and fall from a height or staircase where the head is suddenly and viciously jolted backwards can also cause whiplash, and can also happen when being struck on the head by a solid object.

How Long Does Whiplash Last?

As per statistical data available most incidents of whiplash cures within a few days to three months. In very few cases the problem may extend up to six months or years.

How is Whiplash Injury Treated?

Treatment of whiplash involves medication as well as physical therapy. Medical practitioner advice for pain medications like aspirin and Tylenol. Depending on the severity of the injury and level of pain doctors also prescribe painkillers and muscle relaxants. In addition to medicine the following physical therapies are also recommended:

  • Icing: Icing the injured portion just after the injury helps to reduce the pain and swelling if any. Later it can be extended for 20 minutes on an average in every 3 hours for 3 days.
  • Neck Brace or Collar: This is given to provide support to the muscles and bones surrounding the neck. However, this can’t be applied for a long time since long term use may weaken the bones and muscles causing further complications.
  • Apply Moist Heat Around The Neck: This can be done only after 3 days of icing. Such heat can be applied only after the initial swelling has been mostly gone. Heat can be used through warm, wet towels or otherwise bathing in warm water has the same effect.
  • Ultrasound and Electrical Stimulation: These modalities are extremely helpful in relieving pain at early stages of whiplash; however, these therapies can’t be taken for a long period.
  • Other Treatments: In more severe cases, some other treatments may be essential. Patients with continued neck pain may be prescribed trigger point release. If symptoms continue for more than one and half month, the injury may be involving the facet joints or discs. This is treated with the use of injections and other methods that block the painful region. Severe whiplash may cause pinched nerves too. Surgery is rarely needed for patients who develop herniated disc which has not improved with non-surgical methods.

What Are The Complications Associated With Whiplash?

Some patients with whiplash complain of chronic pain in neck and back or headaches for years after their accidents. In such situations experts advise for more intensive diagnosis to trace the source of such pain in neck, ligaments and joints are taken and the treatment is devised accordingly.

How To Prevent Whiplash?

Whiplash are solely caused by accidents, hence preventive steps is not much effective.

However, there are some measures which can be adopted to improve the odds:

  • Strengthening exercises for neck and back muscles make those portions stronger and flexible.
  • People who need to sit in a same posture throughout the day like at offices must take frequent walks and rest to relax neck and back muscles.
  • Drivers and other co-passengers must use seat belt to prevent sudden jerking, which is the primary cause of whiplash from road accident.
  • Wearing appropriate sports equipment’s and practicing related body movements help to reduce accidents in contact sports.

Conclusion

Whiplash is generally a painful outcome of an accident. It’s hard to prevent, but a few precautionary steps as stated can be adopted to reduce the risk and severity of whiplash. On the other hand, injured person needs to be treated with medicines and therapies to reduce the intensity of pain and prevent further damages to muscles, tendons and bones. Whiplash is completely curable within a short period if the patient and the family members start early treatment under expert medical practitioner.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD,FFARCSI

Pain Assist Inc.

Last Modified On: July 14, 2018

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

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