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Chiropractor treating a woman’s neck pain

Whiplash Neck Injury: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

If you engage in contact sports often or recently got into a car accident, chances are you’ve suffered some mild whiplash neck injury. Neck whiplash occurs when you suffer a sudden and forceful impact that vigorously moves your head back and forth in rapid succession.

This violent movement will stretch and tear tendons and ligaments in the surrounding area. Most people suffering from this injury will usually have a mild muscle sprain or ligament strain around the neck. While the pain typically lasts for a few days or weeks, some people will develop chronic pain following the injury.

What Causes Whiplash Neck Injury?

As mentioned earlier, whiplash occurs when your head rocks backward and forward in an abrupt and violent motion. Here are some accidents and activities that cause whiplash injuries:

  • Car accidents such as getting rear-ended
  • Cycling collisions
  • Getting tackled or falling hard in contact sports like basketball or football
  • Non-contact sports like diving
  • Physical assault
  • Riding horses
  • Slips and falls that impact your head

How Does a Whiplash Neck Injury Feel? 

After suffering any of the accidents mentioned above, whiplash symptoms can be felt within or after 24 hours. However, there are instances wherein the symptoms will surface only after a few days. Regardless of their onset, the symptoms following a whiplash neck injury will usually include:

  • Pain and stiffness of the neck
  • Limited range of motion around the area
  • Headaches generally coming from the base of your skull
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision

Uncommon symptoms of whiplash that are also felt in chronic cases include:

  • Tinnitus or ringing of your ears
  • Memory problems
  • Concentration issues
  • Sleep troubles and irritability
  • Depression

When to Call Your Chiropractor

While whiplash can heal on its own in time, it’s always best to see your chiropractor after getting into an accident. Identifying the early signs of damage is crucial in preventing your condition from getting worse or becoming a more severe case. This is especially true if these symptoms arise:

  • Pain spreads across your arms and shoulders
  • Extreme discomfort with slight head movement
  • Weakness and numbness of the arms and hands
  • Bladder and bowel complications
  • Erratic neck pains and stiffness

Once you see your physician, they’ll usually ask how you got injured and locate your pain to find out if it’s dull, sharp, or shooting. They’ll also ask you about your medical history. They’ll interrogate you to find out if you suffered a previous whiplash neck injury, what medications you’re currently taking, and if you have pre-existing health conditions that could play a role in worsening your current injury.

Obtaining these details is crucial for your recovery as there might be issues that could interfere with some whiplash treatment. Once your doctor has a clear picture of your medical history, they will then let you undergo a series of physical checkups.

What to Expect from a Whiplash Physical Exam

Your doctor will usually start the physical exam by observing your posture and looking for any misalignments. After that, they’ll perform a palpation method around your neck area for any stiffness or tenderness.

Then, they’ll see how much your whiplash neck injury has limited your range of motion. There will be further assessment if your doctor suspects an irritated nerve. This complication often manifests as a weakness or tingling sensation affecting your shoulders, hands, and arms.

Expect to see your doctor use a rubber hammer to see if your neck nerves are sending the right signals to your biceps and forearms. Next, they’ll measure if muscles on your shoulder, arms, and hands are experiencing significant weakness after the injury.

If your whiplash injury is affecting your hands, your doctor will also look and assess your fingers to identify which nerves are affected and if the root of the problem can be traced from there.

For instance, if your C6 has been affected, you’ll usually feel the tingling sensation on your hand and forearm’s thumb side. However, if your C8 is involved, that means the pinky side of your hand and forearm are affected. 

Treatment for Whiplash Neck Injury Symptoms

If your doctor deems your whiplash neck injury as a mild case, they’ll most likely prescribe OTC (over-the-counter) pain medication to alleviate the discomfort. You should also follow these at-home tips for faster recovery:

  • Rest – try to limit your movement in the first few days of the injury to give the muscles and ligaments time to heal.
  • Ice therapy – this is best used when the whiplash neck injury is recent (48 hours) to reduce swelling of the affected area.
  • Heat therapy – improves circulation in the area, which will relax the muscles, improve flexibility, and repair damaged tissues. Do this a few days after suffering the injury.
  • Neck-specific exercises – try to perform neck-specific exercises after resting for a few days. Ease your way through them and do not perform sudden motions. To be sure, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to do this. Moreover, reduce or stop exercising or engaging in physically demanding activities if you feel dizziness, vertigo, and shooting pain in your arms and hands.

For severe cases, your doctor might recommend the following treatment:

  • Physical therapy performed by a trained physical professional
  • Manual manipulation carried out by a certified chiropractor
  • Injections such as cervical epidural steroid injection
  • Psychotherapy – this is when you develop psychological problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. You’ll undergo counseling with appropriate medications prescribed to increase the recovery process. 

Preventing Whiplash Neck Injury

Since whiplash neck injuries almost always occur during car accidents, prevention should be one of your priorities. You can adjust your head restraint to the proper height and distance to help cradle your head during collisions.

The height of the headrest should reach the top of your head or at least the top of your ears. You should also position your head two inches or less from the headrest and do not exceed more than four inches. This is for the headrest to immediately prevent your neck from snapping farther back and causing severe injuries.

Visit the LifeClinic blog for more health, lifestyle, and fitness advice.

Dr. Reza Alizadeh

Dr. Reza is the visionary behind LifeClinic. His leadership is the foundation for the patient and team member experience, and overall direction of the LifeClinic. As the creator of IMJT, Dr. Reza continues to be the primary teacher on this technique.

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