Whiplash is a general term used to describe sprain or strain injury to the cervical spine structures including the muscles, ligaments, joints, and discs resulting from a sudden and forceful backward and then forward head and neck motion. The injury is usually related to a motor vehicle collision from the front or back. Often times, symptoms are not immediately present at the time of injury but may develop after a few days or even a few weeks.
Common symptoms include neck and upper back pain; neck stiffness with reduced range of motion; muscle spasm, swelling, and tenderness in the neck and upper back. Also, “referred pain” may occur with symptoms such as headache, jaw pain, shoulder and arm pain with with or without numbness and tingling into those areas. In more severe cases, “neurologic-like” symptoms with can develop in the absence of a specific nerve injury. Such complaints include ringing in the ears, blurry vision, poor concentration or memory, nausea, vision changes, difficulty sleeping and fatigue. Additionally, since whiplash often involves a motor vehicle collision it is important to note whether or not a patient might have suffered a concussion or loss of consciousness which could act as a primary cause of the “neurologic-like” complaints.
Most patients with whiplash will improve within a few weeks with conservative care measures. However, in more severe cases symptoms can linger and supervised medical treatment is required. Treatment options can include acute pain management options such as physical therapy, medication, and injections. Physical therapy consists of both active and passive treatments. These treatments are utilized to stretch sore muscles, reduce muscle spasm, increase muscle blood flow, strengthen muscle, improve cervical range of motion and thereby reduce pain symptoms. Physical therapy, an active treatment, consists of stretching and strengthening exercise activities. Exercise is utilized improve strength of the supporting spinal muscles and restore normal spinal posture and range of motion. Passive treatment can include such things as ice, muscles rubs, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, traction, massage, and chiropractic manipulation which are used to relieve muscle tension and pain. Injections could include trigger point injections, facet joint block, and epidural steroid injection. Injections are used to decrease muscle, joint, or nerve inflammation and pain. Surgery is rarely needed unless other injuries are identified on diagnostic imaging or nerve testing such as spinal disc injury, nerve impingement or damage, or spinal instability.