Neck injuries are common but whiplash is usually associated with vehicular accidents, during sports, or a fall. Whiplash is the most common injury in motor vehicle accidents, affecting up to 83% of patients involved in collisions, and is a common cause of chronic disability.1
While in most cases it causes severe pain soon after the incident, sometimes it may not be obvious. The bone and soft tissue injuries like ligament strain may go undetected during an initial presentation that can delay the diagnosis and treatment.1 Hence it is all the more important that you be aware of your condition and your symptoms after whiplash. One of the common questions asked regarding this is, should you workout if you have whiplash?
What is Whiplash?
Whiplash is a neck injury occurring due to rapid, forceful back and forth movement of the neck, which is similar to the cracking of a whip.2 This forceful movement can cause injury to the spinal bones, intervertebral discs, and the soft tissue of the neck like ligaments, muscles, and nerves. Whiplash is associated with a clinical presentation like neck stiffness, neck pain, arm pain, numbness or tingling, memory and concentration issues, and psychological distress.1
Other common symptoms include headaches, shoulder tenderness, fatigue, dizziness, vision disturbances, and tinnitus. Emotional symptoms include anger, depression, fear, sleep disturbances, and behavioral changes. Most people get better within a few weeks by following a treatment plan and therapeutic exercise program. However, some may continue to experience chronic neck pain and related complaints.
Diagnosis is done based on clinical examination to assess tenderness in the neck and shoulders, affecting the range of motion, reflexes, and arm strength, and determine the degree of injury and any neurological involvement. Scans may be ordered if needed. Treatment often includes pain-relieving medications, muscle relaxants, certain specific medicines, and physical therapy. The rehabilitation program for whiplash usually includes therapeutic exercises to relieve pain, regain flexibility, and range of motion, and build muscle strength.
Whiplash-associated disorders are classified into grades depending on the severity. This ranges from neck pain alone to neck pain associated with other symptoms of moderate severity of neurological symptoms like numbness, tingling, and weakness, while the most severe form includes those with fracture and dislocation.
Thus, the exercise program for rehabilitation and how soon you can follow your workout routine will mainly depend on the grade and severity of your injury. So if you are wondering whether you can workout if you have whiplash, it is best to focus on healing and exercises supporting recovery, following which you will be able to plan your workout once your injury heals.
Should You Work Out If You Have Whiplash?
It is essential to know what types of exercises can be performed after whiplash as this will mainly depend on the severity of injury and symptoms. In most cases, it is not advisable to begin your workout immediately if you have whiplash. Rest is the most important factor soon after you have an injury.
If you have whiplash, avoid exercising for the first few days. Pain and other symptoms may begin within a few hours or in the initial two-three days. Follow medical management, rest, and ice application, as advised. If there are no major symptoms you will be advised to begin with therapeutic exercises and gradually progress depending on your improvement. These are best done with medical advice and under the supervision of a physical therapist.
After a brief period of initial rest, exercises are advised. Complete rest for a prolonged time can promote muscle and soft tissue weakness, particularly around injured tissues.3 Make sure you avoid strenuous, sudden, or jerky movements and take frequent breaks from your work during the recovery period. Recovery from whiplash begins with increased function, even if pain persists longer, if you can move better, you are getting active, you are improving.3
Moreover, the joints and muscles work better and heal better when they are moved. If tissues are not used or they are supported for long or when not needed they get weaker. Supports are advised only when there is a risk of further injury or the healing is incomplete, like when you are traveling while you are not fully recovered. Exercising injured tissues aids in their faster recovery, or at least the scar tissue formed during this period heals in a way that allows proper joint movement.3
As you get better and healing occurs you will be able to perform other exercises and also be with neck strengthening exercises. Once you start feeling better low impact exercises like walking and yoga with gentle moves may be good but it is better to avoid strenuous cardio workouts if you still have other symptoms. It is better to avoid contact sports and other high-impact activities as there is a risk of injury.
How long will it take to get better again depends on the extent of your injury and the rehabilitation done for recovery Most people can get back to their normal activities but it may take weeks or a few months for the discomfort to go away in some cases.4 With a proper mix of rest, regular activity, and therapeutic exercises you should be able to get better
To resume a workout routine that you have been following before whiplash may take some time but a guided exercise program can surely do the job. It is always better to proceed gradually because the entire body is working on the healing process and you need adequate rest and time to repair those tissues. So follow medical advice and begin with the advised neck exercises initially and proceed as your health improves if there are no symptoms.
Exercises To Do If You Have Whiplash
Here are some of the best exercises, usually advised if you have whiplash. However, when to begin, how to perform and the number of repetitions may depend on individual health and severity of the injury.
The recommended exercises include movements that improve the neck range of motion and regain its flexibility. Once you can perform these comfortably, you can progress to strengthening exercises that will gradually improve muscle strength and tone.
- Posture Correction – Sit or stand upright with your back straight. Now draw your shoulder blades down and backward. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and then release.
- Chin Tucks – Pull your neck backward without bending, such that the chin seems tucked into the chest. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and then release.
- Neck Bending – Gently move your neck up and down and then sideways. Do it comfortably only till the movement is comfortable without any pain or discomfort. Repeat 5 to 10 times.
- Neck Side Tilt – Gently tilt your neck by your sides without bending or raising the shoulders. Repeat 5 to 10 times on one side and then on the other side.
These are basic neck exercises to improve movement, and flexibility, relieve pain and promote better healing. Neck isometric exercises are usually advised after these, which focus on strengthening the neck muscles and tissues.
Perform these exercises slowly, with gentle and smooth movements, and are best done under supervision. If you feel dizziness, headache, fainting, neck pain or pain in the arm, or any worsening of your symptoms, discontinue the exercises and seek a medical opinion.