What Causes Whiplash? A Quick Guide
Every year, about 3 million Americans experience whiplash. Of that three million, 1.5 million suffer from chronic pain.
If you are in a car accident and believe it caused you whiplash, then you aren’t alone. It is an injury that can be challenging to discern. Many have either never heard of it or only know the basic facts.
Here’s a quick guide on what causes whiplash, what it entails, and how to overcome this injury.
What Causes Whiplash?
Whiplash works the way that it sounds.
It’s a violent whip of the head and neck. It derives its name from the motion of a cracking whip. Usually, your head snaps forward and backward at a rapid speed due to a collision.
The most common incident that causes whiplash is a car accident. People involved in a rear-end collision have their bodies projected forward, then thrown back into the car.
According to the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, most of the general population acquires neck injuries from low-impact car accidents. It is a small, quick motion, but do not underestimate its severity.
With impact, our neck muscles, tendons, and nerves get damaged. Our upper cervical vertebrae strain, which will lead to pain and other injuries down the road. Car accidents are not the only causes of whiplash, though.
Any injury induced by a collision can be the culprit, such as:
- Sports injuries (e.g. football, hockey, karate, ice skating, or gymnastics)
- Fair rides like rollercoasters that entail quick stop-and-go motions
- Physical abuse, punching, slapping, or throwing someone into something
- Falling down steps or onto a hard surface
- Violent shaking, such as shaken baby syndrome
Because car accidents cause most whiplash incidents, people do not consider other high-intensity injuries. However, if you experience trauma that you believe hurt your neck, spine, or upper back, then you should consult a doctor.
Symptoms of Whiplash
When it comes to whiplash symptoms, everyone refers to pain in the neck. While this is the prime factor for the injury, your symptoms may come in different forms.
Some of these signs can often mimic other health-related injuries, too. That is why it is critical to explain to your doctor exactly what you are feeling. You should also know that you can develop whiplash-related disorders, often referred to as WAD.
Here are the most common signals of whiplash:
- Neck pain
- Neck stiffness
- Difficult to turn your head
- Pain when turning your head
- Tender neck or upper back
- Aching neck or upper back
- Tingling/numb feeling in your arm and hand
- Poor memory
- Blurry vision
It is important to note that symptoms of whiplash do not arise right away. You could suffer an accident or injury and walk away feeling fine. Then, several days later, the pain and other symptoms begin to set in.
So, take care to pay attention to your body. If something seems off, or you have new, painful sensations, it is time to make a doctor’s appointment.
What Are the Risks of Whiplash?
Along with the detailed list of symptoms comes the prolonged risks associated with whiplash. If this injury goes untreated or diagnosed, you could potentially see chronic conditions set in. These health risks will affect your everyday routine and quality of life.
The short-term risks of whiplash include:
- Shoulder pain
- Reduced range of motion
- Constant aching of neck, back, shoulders, and arms
- Pins and needles feeling in the neck, back, shoulders, and arms
- Chronic headaches
The topic of headaches deserves more of a discussion because they can be incredibly debilitating. Whiplash can cause “tension headaches” or “cervical headaches” which range from minuscule to severe.
These stem from the base of your neck, where your first cervical vertebrae rest. The muscles and tendons are stiff and injured, which radiates up the back of your skull. These headaches often wrap around to the front of your face, causing pain behind the eye and temple.
More often than not, cervical migraines affect one side of the face. You will know that you have one of these aches because it will usually happen on the same side every time. Whiplash-related headaches tend to be a prolonged symptom and one that can affect your overall quality of life.
Other long-term symptoms include:
- Problems with concentration
- Short term memory loss
- Jaw pain
- Impaired vision
- Chronic tinnitus that never ceases
- Chronic neck and back pain that is difficult to treat
Since these symptoms are long-term, they can arise long after the accident or injury. Some people say they didn’t notice they had whiplash until several years later.
What Speed Can Cause Whiplash?
When speaking of whiplash, a violent car accident or scene comes to mind. However, you should note that the level of impact does not have to be forceful for whiplash to occur.
A car moving at about 5 to 10 miles per hour is enough to inflict a severe neck injury. When a car rear-ends you, it does not have to be moving at the speed of light for your body to jerk forward.
After you experience a low-speed injury, pay close attention to how you feel. If you have nausea, vomiting, or dizziness, you may need immediate medical attention.
Is Whiplash the Same as a Concussion?
Sometimes people mistake whiplash for a concussion and vice versa. Doing this could be a potentially life-threatening mistake. Therefore, it is a good idea to run over what differs between these two.
Whiplash is not the same as a concussion because it affects the neck, spine, and muscles. It can make you dizzy and cause pain, but the effects are usually not life-threatening.
On the other hand, a concussion occurs when your brain gets jerked around inside of the skull. That creates swelling and possibly internal bleeding, which can lead to death.
Concussions happen due to a blow to the head. However, they can also occur in the same manner as whiplash.
All it takes is enough force to jiggle your brain around. So, if you are in an accident and experience dizziness along with vomiting or confusion, do not assume whiplash.
How Do You Diagnose Whiplash?
When you visit a doctor, they will assess your head, neck, and spine. They will ask you a series of questions about how you feel or if you have any pain. However, the only way to truly diagnose whiplash is through a series of methods like:
- Xray: An X-ray will show the doctor what is happening inside of your body. They will check for any fractures to your spine or other bones.
- CT Scan: Otherwise known as computer tomography, this scan lets doctors see the cause behind pain in the neck and back
- MRI: MRIs show up as 3D images. They are necessary for your doctor to tell whether you have severe injuries to any discs or your spinal cord
You will also undergo a physical exam where the doctor can see your range of motion. They will ask you to move your head from side to side or turn around to look behind you. While this can be painful, it lets the doctor asses how critical your injuries are.
Medication for Whiplash
There are several ways to help your whiplash or reduce the symptoms. One of the most popular methods is via medication. Your doctor may suggest or prescribe different forms of medicine depending on the severity of your pain.
To ease your suffering a bit, you can take things like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other over-the-counter NSAIDs. These all react as anti-inflammatories in your body and numb the pain receptors within your brain. That way, you won’t feel anything in your neck.
If your pain is too much for NSAIDs to handle, your doctor may prescribe something more powerful like:
- Muscle relaxers
- Prescribed NSAIDs
You can also seek medication through an injectable serum-like epidural, which would provide a stronger sense of relief.
Treatment for Whiplash
If you are looking at getting treatment for whiplash that doesn’t involve medication, then you are in luck. There are a variety of other routes you can take for pain relief.
You could use:
- A cervical collar
- Lots of rest
- Ice and heat packs
- Heating pads
- Physical therapy
- Strength training
You can also find relief by visiting local chiropractors who can relieve tension and pain in the joints. The chiropractor will evaluate your specific whiplash condition, then create a program for treatment.
How Long Does Whiplash Last?
This factor all depends on how severe your injuries are. For those with mild whiplash, it can take up to six months to heal.
However, if you have worse pain and symptoms, it can be years. What’s more, if you have a fracture that causes your whiplash, you might have chronic pain for the rest of your life.
More Articles for Life Tips and Tricks
As you can tell, what causes whiplash can vary on several different levels. Car crashes are the top factor, but you can experience injuries from basic things like falling.
We hope our quick guide helps you learn about whiplash and how to spot the signs and symptoms. If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, we invite you to come and browse our other articles on our website!