Whiplash and Car Accidents

Many people use the term “whiplash” to describe soreness, stiffness, and pain in the upper back, neck, and head following a rear-end traffic collision. Whiplash is a common term seen in insurance claims and accident reports, but it is not a medical term. When a medical provider or chiropractor treats you for whiplash, they will probably code the injury as either a cervical sprain or cervical strain. Although bother terms are used to describe overstretching, sprains are associated with bruising around a joint, and strains are associated with muscle spasms.

The Definition of Whiplash

Whiplash is not a medical term, but rather an event. The word describes the sequence of events when the upper spine, neck, and head are thrown backward (extension) then forward (flexion) upon impact. The abrupt movement causes the ligaments, muscles, and tendons to extend past their normal range of motion, causing the tissues to be strained or sprained. Although whiplash is most often associated with traffic collision, whiplash-related injuries may also result from theme park accidents, sports injuries, or shaken baby syndrome.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Whiplash

The number one symptom of whiplash is neck pain, which can range from mild to severe. If you’ve been in a car accident and have any of the following symptoms, talk to a doctor or chiropractor:

  • Neck stiffness
  • Tight muscles
  • Headaches
  • Tingling in neck
  • Shoulder pain
  • Pain between shoulder blades

Other more serious neurological symptoms are dizziness, vision problems, and poor concentration or memory.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you were rear-ended in a car accident or experienced a whiplash event regardless of the symptoms you are experiencing, you should seek prompt medical attention. This is important not only for your health and well-being but for the purpose of documenting your injuries.  If you file an insurance claim or decide to contact a personal injury attorney, having a documented record of diagnoses and medical treatment will strengthen your claim.

Treating Injuries and Healing from a Whiplash Event

Because the main symptom of whiplash is pain, pain relief is the most sought-after treatment. Your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever like Tylenol or Advil, or prescribe something stronger like a muscle relaxant. You may also be referred to a chiropractor or physical therapist. This treatment may be covered by your insurance or through your personal injury claim.

A 2011 study published in the journal Spine reported that only about half of all individuals reporting whiplash events fully recover. Another study, published in 2017 in the journal Pain reported a relationship between lasting treatment success and returning to work after whiplash. People in good general health and do not have a pain condition are generally more successful in recovery. With any traumatic event, the attitude of the patient and desire to recover is an important factor, although the severity of the injury and medical prognosis may be the biggest factor.

Proactive Prevention of Whiplash Events

It is impossible to prevent an accident that is fully out of your control, but you can take steps to lessen the severity of injuries. Properly position your headrest, wear a seatbelt, sit in your vehicle seat properly, and most importantly, drive safely!