A whiplash injury may occur if the head is moved violently away from the body because of a sudden and powerful jerk or jolt.
The neck moves beyond its normal range of movement, resulting in overstretched ligaments, muscles, and tendons.
The injury is often made worse because the muscles, in order to compensate for the sudden movement, pull the head back into position too hard, causing another overstretching in the opposite direction.
The jolt (or blow to the head) can come from behind, in front, or from the side. Even a slow-speed collision can cause whiplash.
How does it happen?
Most people associate whiplash with a vehicle being hit from behind by another vehicle. However, the impact can come from any direction, and the head may move backward or sideways, not only forward.
The sudden motion of rapid force causes your neck’s tendons and ligaments to stretch and tear, resulting in whiplash.
Some things that can cause whiplash include:
- Car accidents
- Cycling accidents
- Slip and falls in which the head violently jerks backwards
- Physical abuse such as being punched or shaken
- Blows to the head with a heavy object
- Contact sports
- Amusement park rides.
How does it feel?
A whiplash injury typically takes 12-24 hours to develop. At the time of the incident, any swelling or bruising to the neck muscles will not be apparent straight away. In most cases, the discomfort, pain, and stiffness is much worse on the following day, and may continue to worsen as each day goes by.
Common symptoms include:
- a loss (or reduction) of movement in the neck
- neck pain
- neck stiffness
- numbness or pins and needles in the arms and hands
- the back of the neck feels tender
Less common symptoms associated with whiplash include:
- muscle spasms
- swallowing difficulties
- vision problems (vision may be blurred)
- a feeling that you are moving or spinning (vertigo)
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- sleep disturbances
- memory loss
- poor concentration
Headaches, dizziness, problems swallowing, and vision problems should not last long. If they do, tell your doctor straight away.
Getting it properly diagnosed
It is important to have a doctor examine your neck as soon as possible following any recent accidents, falls, or blows to the head.
The following imaging scans may be ordered, especially if a spinal injury is suspected:
X-ray – this will rule out broken bones or other conditions, such as a spinal fractures, collapsed discs or dislocations.
CT (computerized tomography) scans – Oftn comprise of X-ray images that are taken from different angles so as to obtain a more detailed picture of the bone and soft tissue structures.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan – radio waves and a strong magnetic field gradually produce a detailed picture of the affected area. An MRI scan will often be able to detect soft tissue injuries.
Forms of treatment to alleviate symptoms of whiplash:
Applying an ice pack immediately after the injury occurs, or as soon as possible, helps reduce inflammation. Wrap the ice in a towel or some protective barrier – do not apply ice directly to the skin. An ice pack session should last 10-30 minutes.
Under the direction of a qualified healthcare professional, patients can try to move their necks gently so that it does not stiffen up. In cases where symptoms are severe, the individual may have to completely rest the neck until the pain allows for movement.
Medications for pain
Painkillers, such as paracetamol, may reduce whiplash injury pain. Some doctors may advise patients to take painkillers regularly, and not just when the pain is severe. It is important not to exceed the dose.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, can help with the swelling inflammation. Make sure to consult with your doctor before taking any medication for pain.
A qualified healthcare professional can teach the patient how to maintain a good upright posture, for example, keeping the back straight when walking, standing, or sitting; this can prevent neck pain and stiffness from getting worse. A firm pillow can help maintain good posture while sleeping. See a physical therapist for posture training and tips to reduce pain.
Corticosteroid or lidocaine injections might help relieve muscle spasms.
These may help ease muscle spasms. As muscle relaxants can cause drowsiness, most doctors advise their patients to take them at bedtime.
A physical therapist might use massage and manipulation, as well as recommending neck exercises. The physical therapist may also use ice, heat, electrical stimulation, or ultrasound to reduce pain.
Soft foam collars used to be popular for whiplash injury treatment. However, immobilizing the neck for long periods may undermine recovery, because muscle bulk and strength is reduced. You should consult a qualified health practitioner before applying a collar.
Here are some interesting whiplash facts
- More than 1 million people suffer from a whiplash injury each year;
- Around 20% of people involved in rear-end motor vehicle accidents develop some whiplash symptoms;
- Between 10-40% of people suffering from whiplash injury experience symptoms persisting for months or years.
- Whiplash injuries occur in all impact directions, but the risk is highest in rear crashes. Around 50% of the whiplash injuries occur in rear crashes, 30% in frontal crashes and the rest in other types of accidents.
- Stiffer car seats tend to increase loadings on the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine in rear end crashes.
- A towbar adds structure to the end of the vehicle. Statistics from Sweden shows that a vehicle with a towbar has around 20% higher long-term whiplash injury risk if it is hit in a rear-end crash.
When symptoms persist for many months or even years often losses will flow from these injuries such as loss of wages, the cost of medical treatment and rehabilitation and pharmaceutical expenses. This is when consideration should be given to commencing a claim for damages so that you can be compensated for these losses.
In Queensland, if you sustained your whiplash injury in a motor vehicle accident, and you did not cause the accident, you can bring a claim for damages against the person at fault’s CTP insurer.
If you have been involved in an accident whether because of a car accident or as a result of the fault of someone else and have sustained a whiplash injury you should seek medical treatment and legal advice as you may be entitled to compensation.
To discuss your best options, give us a call on 1300 587 542 for a no-obligation chat.