What is ‘whiplash’?

Whiplash is a soft tissue injury commonly associated with the neck and may also be called a neck sprain or neck strain. Soft tissue damage may also occur in other areas of the spine and lower back. Physiotherapy can provide effective treatment for the symptoms felt after such an injury.

The injury caused by sudden neck flexion and extension occurs as a result of an automobile accident and more commonly in a low speed rear-end impact. In the instance of a rear-end impact, the body is stopped by the seatbelt but the unrestrained head continues forwards in the line of travel into end range forward flexion before rebounding backwards into extension. This double movement damages the extensor structures in the neck.

When injury occurs in the lower back, this is due to the cross-strap of the seatbelt restricting the movement of the hips but the lower part of the spine continues forwards into flexion before rebounding back against the seat. The force of this movement can damage the extensor structures in the lower back.

What do I feel?

It is common that a person suffering with whiplash will experience one or more of the following:
• Neck pain and stiffness
• Headaches
• Pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
• Low back pain
• Pain and/or numbness and/or pins and needles in the arm and/or hand
• Dizziness or blurred vision
• Ringing in the ears
• Difficulty concentrating or remembering

• Irritability, sleep disturbances, fatigue.

How is it diagnosed?

A visit to a doctor is advisable after such an injury to rule out any severe damage to the head, neck and spine.

The diagnosis of whiplash is often made by an accurate description of how you sustained the injury and when and where your symptoms occur. The doctor will be able to feel for areas of tenderness and muscle spasm and where the doctor feels it necessary request special tests such as an MRI scan.

How can it be treated?

It is advisable that you seek advice from a physiotherapist post-injury as a course of physiotherapy treatment has been proven to reduce the symptoms. Your doctor can refer you or you can contact either of our fully qualified physiotherapists here at Pioneer Clinic.

Gentle range of movement exercises for the neck and back are advisable in the early stages after injury rather than keeping the neck still in a collar. Ice can provide some pain relief in the first 24 hours by reducing inflammation. Ice should be applied in the form of an ice pack or frozen peas with a cloth placed between the injured area and the ice pack. This should not be applied for any longer than 20 minutes in each hour. Maintaining a good posture is essential to limiting the symptoms you may feel and a physiotherapist will be able to advise you on posture correction and specific exercises to help with this.

The physiotherapist can also use acupuncture to ease muscle spasm and pain felt after injury. Other modalities of treatment available to the physiotherapist include ultrasound, massage, heat, and joint mobilisations. The physiotherapist will also prescribe a series of exercises for you to practice at home to ease stiffness and strengthen any weakened areas. Symptoms usually resolve within several months and a course of physiotherapy treatment can relieve the symptoms sooner than if left untreated.