What is a "Whiplash" Injury?

Whiplash injuries occur when the neck (cervical spine) is suddenly and forcefully jerked, and is typically associated with car accidents.  The speed of the movement is really what causes the "injury."  The speed at which the neck is forced upon impact is faster than we can contract our muscles in attempt to stop the forceful movement resulting, for instance, from the bio-mechanical forces of a car accident.  This results in muscle, tendon, and/or ligament over-stretching, even tearing; the tissue is weakened due to the injury.  Symptoms include:

1.  stiff and painful neck movements,

2.  weakness or, the head “feels heavy” making it challenging to “hold up” as well as,

3.  headache, and, 

4.  sometimes dizziness, ear noises, TMJ or jaw pain, and “mental fog.” 

What should be done in case a whiplash type injury occurs?


The amount or degree of damage to the soft tissues around the neck area - that is, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and disks of the neck — will be the deciding medical factors as to how much rest vs. activity (medical care included) should be initially performed.  If there are no fractures, dislocations or other injuries resulting in an unstable cervical spine (neck), studies have shown rest and a soft collar is actually harmful when compared to early return to activity and exercises.  This is because soft tissue type injuries heal best with "proper motion" in order to get the blood supply over to the affected area to help heal the damaged tissues.

Chiropractic therapy treatment, which essentially exercises the joints of the neck, has been shown in medical studies to actually speed recovery when performed sooner rather than later after a whiplash type injury.  A good way to classify the injury includes four categories:

1) Pain with no significant abnormal clinical findings;

2) Pain with mild clinical findings and notable range of motion loss;

3) Pain with neurological injury (resulting in radiating arm pain for instance); and

4) Pain associated with fracture (bone breaks), and/or dislocation. 

Those persons suffering with category 1 or 2 injuries should minimize rest, collar use, proceed with life’s activities and not be afraid to do desired activities.  Remember, blood flow is key as blood flow supplies oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and joints.  More aggressive type exercise and, utilizing chiropractic adjustments as soon as possible is very effective in the first two categories of the soft-tissue type injury.  Category 4 (fractures and dislocations) injuries require the use of a rigid collar usually for 4-6 weeks as rest/protection is imperative. Bones tend to heal better with limited motion as opposed to soft-tissue type injuries.  Category 3 demands careful monitoring by your chiropractor as neurological problems like arm pain, leg pain and numbness, muscle strength weakness, must be closely watched during the healing process.  The use of ice is helpful with all four categories of injury, especially if there is inflammation, and exercise training is important and can be started sooner in the first two categories of the injury.

What can you do if you sustain a whiplash injury? 

The first thing one can do is partake in the use of ice.  This is a much better choice over the use of heat as ice reduces swelling, and pain while heat can increase swelling because it brings in more blood flow into an already swollen area; this may be overkill in terms of blood flow.  The heat may feel good during its use but most patients report the pain either returns shortly thereafter or, at times, feels worse than before!  Ice and heat can certainly be alternated but ice should be emphasized; you can use ice for 10 minutes, heat 5 minutes, and repeat the ice / heat / ice approach starting and ending with ice. One session usually equals 40 minutes (ice/heat/ice/heat/ice for 10+5+10+5+10, respectively, = 40 min.), and several sessions can be repeated each day.  The old saying of “ice for 24 hours followed by heat” does NOT apply here as ice or “contrast therapy” of ice/heat/ice/heat/ice can be performed for as long as there is pain or, for several weeks or longer. 

The good news is that you will never hurt yourself by using ice but, you can make it hurt worse by using heat too soon so, when in doubt, use ice!  This is the best rule to follow given the nature of these type of injuries.  The next, very important, recommendation is to utilize exercises to stretch and strengthen the neck and upper back region. Chiropractors often instruct their patients in the use of home stretching therapy.  The “general rule” of exercise is slow repetitions staying within “reasonable” boundaries of pain and range of motion.  That is, a good, stretch type of pain is encouraged while avoiding sharp pain whenever possible.  I have discussed several very practical neck stretches and strengthening exercises previously in past blog posts and articles, and I will again address this in the future so please watch for them. Posture correction of chin tucks, keeping your head back over your shoulders is very helpful as well. 

Mark C. Blane is a San Diego Personal Injury Attorney, and the managing lawyer of the Law Offices of Mark C. Blane, a San Diego, California Personal Injury Law Firm dedicated to representing families of people injured in personal injury accidents including car accidents, slip and falls, dog bites, product defects, and the like. If you or a loved one has been killed or injured in an accident in San Diego, or Southern California, due to the negligence of another, please order your free copy of Mr. Blane's book, The 10 Secrets You Need To Know About Your Injury Case, BEFORE You Call A Lawyer. It is full of helpful information that will help you protect your legal rights and it normally sells for $16.95.  However, it is free to all California residents, or those injured in an California accident.



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Dave Thompson 05/08/2015 06:16 PM
After my accident people kept telling me I was suffering from whiplash. I had no idea what that was, and how to get it treated. Good to know for next time that I should use ice instead of heat like everyone was telling me Thanks for the advice to follow if I ever get whiplash again. http://www.burgess-law.com/areas-of-practice/
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