Whiplash explained

Whiplash is a type of acute neck injury most commonly caused by high-speed impact from behind to the back or neck. This results in a rapid back and forth movement in the head and neck, which can damage muscles, ligaments, discs and bones in the neck.

The most common causes of whiplash include; rear end car accidents, sporting accidents and falls. However any sudden, fast movement of the neck can cause whiplash-like symptoms. After the incident, what usually causes pain and stiffness is protective spasm of the neck muscles, which in turn reduces our range of motion and causes the typical “stiff neck” feeling following the incident.

Whiplash usually presents as pain and discomfort after the initial event, which worsens over the first 24 hours following the incident. Common signs and symptoms of whiplash can include:

  • Neck stiffness and pain
  • Reduced neck range of motion
  • Increased pain with movement
  • Headaches, usually beginning at base of skull/top of neck, radiating upwards
  • Shoulder, arm, upper back pain and tenderness
  • Tingling, numbness, burning in arms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Irritability

Most of these symptoms will resolve within a month or so after the incident with appropriate care, however if left untreated can remain for longer periods of time and cause chronic neck pain.

Our physiotherapists’ 3 main goals of whiplash treatment are:

  1. Regain range of motion
  2. Reduce pain
  3. Return to everyday activities

Usually physiotherapy management will recommend a period of (relative) rest with use of ice and/or anti-inflammatory medication during the first few days when there may be swelling in the neck that we want to minimize. We refer to relative rest because while we want to restrict painful movements, we don’t want complete or absolute rest at this time. Once you progress through the acute phase, we want to restore movement as quickly as possible. It might also be smart to make some modifications such as: reducing the weight of shopping bags (making more trips), avoiding heavy lifting jobs around the house and adding breaks during screen time.

Once the initial pain has settled, it is important that we start building up your activity again as prolonged rest is no good for us, or our necks. We can do this by strengthening our muscles that support the neck. The muscles in our back, shoulders and core all play a vital role in our overall posture and strain in our neck, and it is perfectly safe to exercise these groups throughout each stage of rehab.

It is also begin to start moving your neck through gentle exercises that stretch and allow the muscles in our neck to relax.

Throughout your rehab process, our physios can assist in providing soft tissue release, joint mobilisation and strengthening exercises as key components of restoring your range of motion, and ensuring a safe return to your daily activities.

If you have any of these above symptoms or have any questions regarding whiplash, feel free to book in and our team of physios would be more than happy to help you.

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