Whiplash

Whiplash injury is a type of neck injury caused by sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.

Symptoms of whiplash 

Whiplash occurs when the soft tissues in the neck become stretched and damaged (sprained).

Whiplash will often get better within a few weeks or months. But for some people it can last longer and severely limit their activities.

Common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • neck pain and tenderness
  • neck stiffness and difficulty moving your head
  • headaches 
  • muscle spasms
  • pain in the shoulders and arms

Less common symptoms include:

It can take several hours for the symptoms to develop after you injure your neck. The symptoms are often worse the day after the injury. They may continue to get worse for several days.

When to get medical advice 

If you have an injury, or are concerned you are injured, immediately following a road accident - go to an emergency department for assessment. 

Visit your GP if you've recently been involved in a road accident, or you've had a sudden impact to your head and you have pain and stiffness in your neck.

They'll ask how the injury happened and about your symptoms. They may also examine your neck for muscle spasms and tenderness, and may assess the range of movement in your neck.

Scans and tests such as X-rays will usually only be carried out if a broken bone or other problem is suspected. X-rays do not help in the diagnosis of a sprain.

Causes of whiplash 

Whiplash can occur if the head is thrown forwards, backwards or sideways violently.

Common causes of whiplash include:

  • road traffic accidents and collisions
  • a sudden blow to the head – for example, during sports such as boxing or rugby
  • a slip or fall where the head is suddenly jolted backwards
  • being struck on the head by a heavy or solid object

Treatments for whiplash 

Whiplash will usually get better on its own or after some basic treatment.

Treatments for whiplash include:

  • keeping your neck mobile and continuing with your normal activities – using a neck brace or collar isn't recommended
  • painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen – stronger painkillers are available on prescription if these don't help
  • physiotherapy, exercises and stretches

If your pain lasts a long time, you may be referred to a specialist.

Painkilling injections and surgery aren't normally used for whiplash.

Outlook for whiplash 

The length of time it takes to recover from whiplash can vary and is very hard to predict.

Many people will feel better within a few weeks or months. But sometimes it can last up to a year or more.

Severe or long periods of pain can make it difficult to carry out daily activities and enjoy your leisure time. It may also cause problems at work and could lead to anxiety or depression.

Trying to stay positive and focusing on your treatment objectives can help. But if you do feel depressed, speak to your GP about treatment and support.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

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