Whiplash Neck Pain

Whiplash-a soft tissue injury to the neck-is also called neck sprain or neck strain. It is characterized by a collection of symptoms that occur following damage to the neck, usually because of sudden extension and flexion. The disorder commonly occurs as the result of an automobile accident and may include injury to intervertebral joints, discs, and ligaments, cervical muscles, and nerve roots. Symptoms such as neck pain may be present directly after the injury or may be delayed for several days. In addition to neck pain, other symptoms may include neck stiffness, injuries to the muscles and ligaments (myofascial injuries), headache, dizziness, abnormal sensations such as burning or prickling (paresthesias), or shoulder or back pain. In addition, some people experience cognitive, somatic, or psychological conditions such as memory loss, concentration impairment, nervousness/irritability, sleep disturbances, fatigue, or depression.

Considerations

When a vehicle stops suddenly in a crash or is struck from behind, a seat belt will keep a person's body from being thrown forward. But the head may snap forward, then backward, causing whiplash.

Causes

In addition to car accidents, whiplash can be caused by roller coasters and other amusement park rides, sports injuries, or being punched or shaken. (Whiplash is one of the hallmarks of shaken baby syndrome.)

Symptoms

You may feel pain and stiffness in your neck for the first few days following a whiplash injury. Then you feel better, but the pain and stiffness may come back several days later. This symptom can last for months or years.

The discomfort you feel may involve surrounding muscle groups in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Treatment

Treatment for individuals with whiplash may include pain medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and a cervical collar (usually worn for 2 to 3 weeks). Range of motion exercises, physical therapy, and cervical traction may also be prescribed. Supplemental heat application may relieve muscle tension.

First Aid

  • Try over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen.
  • For at least 2 to 3 weeks, avoid activities that bring on or worsen your pain and stiffness.
  • Don't lift or carry anything heavy or participate in sports.
  • Do not sit, especially at a desk, for long periods of time.
  • If possible, stay active by taking short walks.
  • If you have pain when you move your head or the pain involves your shoulders or arms, your doctor may recommend a soft neck collar or short-term prescription drug to relax the muscles.

Prognosis

Generally, prognosis for individuals with whiplash is good. The neck and head pain clears within a few days or weeks. Most patients recover within 3 months after the injury, however, some may continue to have residual neck pain and headaches.

Prevention

Headrests in your car can reduce the severity of neck pain from a car accident. Make sure that the headrest is positioned properly for your height.

If you do get whiplash, learn proper stretching exercises once your neck has healed. This reduces the chance that neck pain or stiffness will come back.

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