CHENNAI: Whiplash, commonly called neck strain, occurs due to sudden, forceful impact causing the head to rapidly move forward and backward. This results in extension of neck muscles, ligaments and joints beyond the normal range of motion, leading to strain injury to the neck. This condition is commonly caused due to accidents but can also result from other types of traumas. The symptoms may not appear immediately, but it can cause long term pain and discomfort.
A whiplash could be a result of car accidents, physical abuse, contact sports or trauma such as falls or heavy blows to the head.
Mild symptoms may include:
Other severe symptoms:
Symptoms indicating immediate medical care:
For the diagnosis, your doctor may ask several questions about the incident, the severity and frequency of symptoms, location of pain, type of pain and ability to perform daily tasks to get a better understanding of the condition. They may also move your head, neck and arms, and ask you to perform simple tasks to assess:
Although imaging tests may not directly confirm whiplash diagnosis, your doctor may order imaging tests to eliminate other conditions which may be causing neck pain. These imaging tests include:
Most people with whiplash injury recover within few days to weeks. However, some people experience chronic pain and headache even years after their accident has occurred. Some complications associated with whiplash include persistent, severe neck pain and headaches, increasing limitation of movement, pain spreading to the arms, and neurological problems.
Some people are at a higher risk of complications:
Treatment of whiplash:
Treatment of whiplash depends on the extent and severity of the injury. The main goals of treatment are pain control, restoration of normal range of motion and return back to normal activities. Longer the restriction of activity, the higher is the impact of de-conditioning on the patient. Various treatment methods include:
Heat or cold: Application of heat or cold to the neck in the first 24 hours.
Medications: Over-the-counter pain relief medications (ibuprofen) or prescribed medications (muscle relaxants/antidepressants).
Physical therapy: Stretching and strengthening exercises for neck muscles to help restore normal range of motion.
Rest and support devices: Resting along with support devices such as soft foam cervical collars for stabilising the neck, comforting neck muscles and supporting recovery.
Injections: Steroid or local anesthetic injections into the painful muscle and cervical facet joint blocks.
Frequently Asked Questions
Whiplash and concussions — are they the same thing?
No, a concussion is a traumatic brain injury and the most common symptoms include headache, loss of memory, nausea and vomiting, confusion or temporary loss of consciousness. Concussion may occur along with the whiplash injury.
Can whiplash cause neurological problems?
Sometimes. A whiplash injury can affect the brain and cause neurological problems such as memory loss, difficulty in concentrating, sleep disturbances, sudden mood changes, anxiety and depression in some cases.
What does whiplash feel like in the neck?
Whiplash may feel like a dull, aching pain in the front and back region of the neck, accompanied by stiffness and difficulty in turning the head from side to side. The severity depends on the type and impact of injury.
What happens if you leave whiplash untreated?
Untreated whiplash can lead to long-term complications such as chronic, severe neck pain and stiffness, loss of motion, neurological problems and degenerative disc changes.
The author is a senior consultant and spine surgeon at Institute of Advanced Spine Sciences, Gleneagles Global Health City, Chennai
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