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Whiplash

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Whiplash is neck injury caused by sudden, vigorous head movement in one direction, then back again quickly, often caused during a motor vehicle accident.
  • You may just feel uncomfortable on the day of the injury, while your pain, swelling and bruising may increase over the following days.
  • Your symptoms are likely to improve over about one week, but some people take longer to recover.
  • Whiplash injury affects soft tissue, so it doesn’t show up on x-rays.
  • If your neck pain is the result of a motor vehicle accident or another injury, see your doctor.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is an injury to your muscles, tendons or other soft tissues of your neck. It is caused by a sudden and vigorous movement of the head in one direction, then back again quickly, most commonly during a car accident.

When your neck is forced beyond its usual range of movement, the soft tissues (tendons, muscles and ligaments) may be overstretched or sprained. This causes pain and discomfort in your neck and shoulders and may also cause back pain.

How do I know if I have whiplash?

Sometimes you can have no symptoms after a whiplash injury, but sometimes your symptoms can be severe.

Pain from a whiplash injury often begins 6 to 12 hours after the injury. You may just feel uncomfortable on the day of the injury or accident and find that your pain, swelling and bruising increase over the following days.

Common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • neck problems: pain, stiffness, swelling or tenderness
  • difficulty moving your neck
  • headaches, difficulty concentrating
  • muscle spasms or weakness
  • ‘pins and needles’, numbness or pain in your arms and hands or shoulders
  • dizziness, vertigo, (a feeling you are moving or spinning) or tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
  • difficulties swallowing or blurred vision

Your symptoms are likely to greatly improve or disappear within a few days to weeks. It may take longer for your symptoms to resolve completely and you might even experience some pain and neck stiffness for months after a whiplash injury.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the neck pain and stiffness Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes whiplash?

Whiplash injuries are commonly caused by motor vehicle accidents. For example if your neck is quickly accelerated and decelerated in a rear-end or side impact.

You can also get a whiplash injury from a sudden blow to the head during contact sports, such as rugby or boxing. Other examples of causes of whiplash include being are hit on the head by a heavy object, slipping, falling, jolting or jarring your head.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see a doctor if you have had a motor vehicle accident or an injury that’s causing pain and stiffness in your neck.

If you suspect that your injury was not the result of an accident, and that it was deliberately inflicted, seek help from a healthcare professional as soon as possible. This could be a nurse or doctor at a hospital emergency department or your GP, or a school nurse. If you are not sure who to speak to, call healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222 for advice.

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How is whiplash diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you, feel your neck and see how well your neck moves in different directions. They may order a neck x-ray to rule out a bone fracture or dislocation. Whiplash is caused by injury to soft tissue, so it won’t show up on an x-ray.

How do I treat whiplash?

Stay active

While you are recovering from whiplash, try to stay active. Continue your normal activities as much as you can. Avoiding activity after a whiplash injury might mean it takes you longer to recover.

Adapt your activities

At first, you may need to adapt how you move to take care of your neck. Then gradually build up to your normal activities as your neck improves.

You might need to adapt some of your work or recreational activities for a while to avoid unnecessary strain on your neck. For example, you could make more trips so you don’t have to carry too much shopping at once, cut down on housework or gardening, or lift the handlebars on your bike so you can change your posture.

Try an ice pack

An ice pack can relieve your swelling and pain. Apply this as soon as possible after the injury, for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. You can make an ice pack from a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel to prevent cold burns.

Consider your posture

Correct posture is important after a whiplash injury. Keep your back straight when you are sitting, standing or walking to help prevent stiffness and pain developing. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, take regular breaks to stand up and move around so that your neck and back do not become stiff. Adding a back support to your chair may provide relief while you are recovering from an injury, especially if you work at a desk.

Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy may help you to regain movement in your neck. Physiotherapists use gentle exercises, manipulation and massage to help restore your body’s maximum range of movements after an injury or illness. A physiotherapist can also teach you how to exercise, without causing further damage to your neck.

See your doctor or pharmacist

If you are in pain, get advice from your doctor or pharmacist on suitable pain relief medicines.

What should I avoid when I have whiplash?

Avoid heavy lifting, punching or pulling, or contact sports like rugby and boxing, until your symptoms improve. Check with your doctor or healthcare professional before you to start these activities again.

Take care when lifting, bending or carrying out repetitive twisting movements. Make sure that you take regular breaks.

Resting, taking time off work or wearing a collar are not likely to help you recover from whiplash. Don’t do these without first speaking with your doctor or physiotherapist.

How can I prevent whiplash?

Car design has improved to reduce the chance of whiplash. It’s important to adjust your car seat and headrest correctly to minimise your chances of whiplash.

For correct posture when driving, adjust your steering wheel so it’s level with your chest, not your face. Keep your arms bent and your thumbs on the rim of the steering wheel. Have the seat upright so your back and shoulders have support and sit deep in the seat, bracing your body with your left foot.

What complications might I experience from whiplash?

In serious whiplash injuries, there may be damage to your nerves, fracture or dislocation of your neck.

Most people fully recover from a whiplash injury. For a small percentage of people, whiplash can lead to ongoing pain and disability. Some people may develop depression or post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Your attitude can also affect your recovery. Research has shown that if you believe you’re going to recover after whiplash you have a better chance of full recovery than if you feel distressed and negative about your injury. Your age and the severity of the initial injury also play in a role in how quickly you will recover.

Resources and support

Read more on what to do if you have a whiplash injury, including exercises for whiplash, in the Whiplash Injury Recovery, A Self Help Guide from the University of Queensland, published by The Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022


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