Whiplash Injury & Neck Sprains vs Neck Strains
Whiplash is a common injury that happens during a rear-end car accident collision. It occurs because of a forceful, quick back and forth movement of the neck which can cause a strain in the neck as well as other injuries like a herniated disc. Neck strains are not the same thing as a neck sprain, even though they are similar. Neck strains involve damage to the muscles or tendons which connect muscle to bone. A neck sprain is a tearing of the ligaments, or the tissue that connects bones to each other. Either way, you’ll likely have quite a bit of neck pain with a strain or a sprain.
Causes of Whiplash
Whiplash is frequently caused by car accidents, because the impact of the accident sends a shockwave through your body, whipping your neck back and forth in a sudden motion wreaking havoc on the neck muscles and spinal vertebrae. Any motion that causes the neck to suddenly jerk back and forth can cause whiplash though. It also frequently happens in contact sports like football, sometimes concurrently with a concussion. Whiplash can also happen if you’re punched or shaken.
Symptoms of Whiplash
First and foremost if experiencing whiplash symptoms you’d feel neck pain and stiffness. That means you’ll have a loss of range of the motion of your neck, and worsening of the pain with movement. Sometimes headaches can come on, with tingling or numbness in the arms, tenderness in the shoulder or upper back and fatigue / dizziness. There are less common symptoms as well like:
- Blurred vision
- Ringing in the ears
- Memory Problems
These symptoms may take hours or days to begin, so if you feel fine immediately after a car accident but get some aches a few days later it still might be a good idea to check with a doctor. These symptoms might look like other conditions as well, so having a medical professional diagnose your condition is also very helpful. A doctor will ask you about your symptoms and how well you can perform everyday tasks. There is also an examination to check the range of motion of your neck and shoulders, as well as tenderness, reflexes, strength and what might cause pain.
How long does whiplash last?
That all depends on how bad the car accident was, or with what intensity your neck was whipped back and forth. If the car accident was a simple fender bender and you only have mild symptoms it can clear up in just a few days. As symptoms get worse, the longer it takes to heal increases, such as a few weeks. Even if they go away quickly, you will probably still want to take it easy with your neck and go through some gradual rehabilitation to reduce the odds of straining your neck again in the future. If you were in a more serious car accident, then this type of injury can last for months, and might even get worse if left untreated. Most of the time you should consult with a doctor to determine the level of injury, since even a low speed car crash can result in long term injury.
Lower Neck Pain from Whiplash
Whiplash causes neck pain and stiffness, it’s true. But if the impact of a car accident also causes a herniated disc along with whiplash then you may experience a whole different level of neck pain. The thing about a cervical herniated disc is that it can be radicular, meaning it radiates to nearby areas of the body like the arms and hands. Herniated disc pain can also feel like tingling and numbness, and also cause weakness in the neck and arms. If you do experience numbness in the neck, arms and hands due to a herniated disc you should definitely speak to a doctor about your treatment options. Much of the time herniated discs can be treated with non-surgical medication like pain medication and physical therapy. But if the symptoms are particularly bad and aren’t resolving with less invasive treatments then surgery may be a consideration.
Whiplash Treatment Options
Whiplash treatments options are mostly to reduce the pain, and ensure your neck heals properly. Ice packs on the neck help reduce pain and can be done for 15 minutes every few hours for a few days, but you’ll want to wrap the ice pack in a towel as not to injure the skin of your neck. After icing the neck for a few days you can switch to a moist heat after the initial swelling has gone down. You can simply use warm, wet towels or just take a warm bath to help ease the pain.
Pain medication can be used if recommended by your doctor to manage pain as you go through the healing process. Over the counter medicines are usually helpful, but if they aren’t helping with your pain your doctor can recommend prescription strength pain medicine. You might see people with neck braces after a car accident. The reason for this is to help stabilize your neck as you heal so it doesn’t move around too much and cause further pain and issues. However, you shouldn’t use these long term because they can weaken your neck muscles and cause instability in the long run.
Physical Therapy for Whiplash
After you’ve been diagnosed with whiplash, and it isn’t a very mild case that goes away in a couple days, physical therapy assists in speeding up the recovery process. The cold and hot therapy helps with muscle spasms and pain, with heat relaxing tense muscles and increasing circulation, and cold to reduce swelling. Deep tissue massage also helps relax muscle tension and the soft tissues around the area, which helps them heal faster. Ultrasound therapy helps increase blood circulation and reduce muscle spasms, cramping, swelling, stiffness and pain. The sound waves penetrate your muscle tissues and create a gentle healing heat.
When you’re feeling well enough to start exercising the area, a physical therapist can show you which exercises to begin with to increase your strength and range of motion in your neck. It’s important to tailor your routine to your capability and how much the area has healed since the injury. A professional physical therapist can also correct posture and show you ergonomic principles to assist aligning your neck in everyday life. Even after the whiplash is fully healed these principles can help prevent other types of neck pain in the future and ensure you have a strong and health spine.