How to treat whiplash injuries

Whiplash injuries are common. Whiplash and whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) are frequently seen in motor vehicle accidents when the head is suddenly jerked back and forth beyond its normal limits, just like a whip.

Whiplash is a vertebral dysfunction that can also be described as a sprain of the joints in the neck. While many whiplash related injuries seen by physiotherapists are a result of car accidents, whiplash can also result from forceful sporting injuries that cause similar stress to the neck joints, ligaments, muscles and discs.

Up to 75% of people involved in car accidents develop neck pain, with even minor car bumps causing enough whipping of the neck to cause painful or noticeable symptoms in the muscles and ligaments supporting the spine[1].

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Whiplash is a complex mechanism that can cause pain in the neck, shoulders, back, head and arms. The pain may come on immediately after the accident or come on slowly afterwards and be accompanied by symptoms including[2]:

  • Headache or pain in the jaw or face
  • Pain or reduced movement in the neck
  • Pain between the shoulder blades
  • Lower back pain or stiffness
  • Irritability, Fatigue, Dizziness
  • Pain in the feet and hands
  • Nausea
  • Ringing in the ears or Blurred vision

What is the best treatment for whiplash?

Research shows that the most effective way to treat the complexity of whiplash injuries is with a combination of treatment options tailored to your individual condition.[3] Physiotherapy management with an expert in rehabilitation such as a sports physio who specialises in neck injuries or whiplash is extremely effective.

Acute treatment consists of reducing your pain and inflammation in the localised area and stabilizing your neck to prevent any further damage from occurring.  You can’t beat ice when it comes to a natural anti-inflammatory and when your neck is painful you will be wanting to ice the region regularly.

Once you begin recovery treatment with your physio, you will be given a thorough physical history, orthopaedic, neurological and spinal examination to determine the exact location and mechanism of your neck pain.  Your physio may also refer you for an X-ray, CT or MRI in order to fully assess any damage that appears to be more serious.

Whiplash sufferers tend to get the best results when there is a combination of active range of motion exercises such as gentle mobilisation, massage therapy and gentle stretching in a recovery program. Other common treatment methods for whiplash include:

  • Exercise to promote flexibility, strength and good posture
  • Fine neck muscle and proprioception retraining programs
  • Acupuncture or dry needling
  • Joint mobilisation or manipulation to loosen stiff joints
  • Soft tissue massage for short-term muscle tension relief

How long does it take to recover from whiplash?

How long is a piece of string? Just as the symptoms and severity of whiplash vary from person to person and between mechanisms of injury, so can the recovery time. Research shows that most whiplash sufferers who participate in actively guided treatment with a physio take from a few days to several months to rehabilitate[4].

There are many other non-physical factors which can impact the length of your recovery, including depression and trauma-related anxiety, so it is important to raise any additional issues with a qualified health professional to give yourself the best chance of recovery[5].

Do you have a whiplash injury?

Don’t let a whiplash injury affect your ability to work or do the things you love. Book an appointment now by choosing physiotherapy and then by choosing a time that suits you, alternatively, please call us on 02 8964 4086.

[1] Sturzenegger M. et al. (1994). Presenting symptoms and signs after whiplash injury: The influence of accident mechanisms. Neurol., 44, pp. 688–693

[2] Stace R. and Gwilym S. « Whiplash associated disorder: a review of current pain concepts. » Bone & Joint 360, vol. 4, nr. 1. 2015.

[3] Sterling M. (2014). Physiotherapy management of whiplash-associated disorders (WAD). Journal of Physiotherapy, 60, pp. 5–12

[4] Gargan MF. Et al. (1994).The rate of recovery following whiplash injury. Eur Spine J, 3, pp. 162

[5] Phillips LA. Et al. (2010). Whiplash-associated disorders: who gets depressed? Who stays depressed?. Eur. Spine J., 19(6), pp. 945-956

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