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Whiplash Injuries

by Chelsea Commander, APRN, FNP-C


Whiplash injuries are caused by an abrupt backwards and/or forward jerking motion of the head, often the result of a car accident. Most people involved in a minor motor vehicle accident recover quickly without any chronic symptoms. In whiplash, the spines intervertebral joints, discs, ligaments, muscles, and nerve roots may become damaged. Symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, headaches, pain in the shoulders or shoulder blades, low back pain, dizziness, fatigue and sleep disturbances.

In most cases whiplash is diagnosed by a thorough history and physical by a physician. X-rays cannot show damage to soft tissues such as the discs, muscles, and ligaments, but may be taken to assess for fracture. Often, if neck pain continues despite conservative treatment, a CT or MRI may be required for further evaluation of the soft tissues.

Whiplash injuries are treated with pain relief medications such as NSAIDS like ibuprofen and naproxen. Other treatment includes gentle exercises, physical therapy, traction, massage, heat, ice and injections. Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles and reduce painful motions. In the past, whiplash was often treated with cervical immobilization, however it is now believed early movement is beneficial.  Cervical collars and immobilization may cause muscle atrophy (muscle wasting), decrease blood flow to the injured tissues, and cause greater chances of chronic symptoms. In most cases, pain will resolve with time, medications and physical therapy.

If you think you may have a whiplash injury, consult with a doctor for an evaluation.