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Whiplash Injury: Diagnosis and Treatment

Whiplash is also known as neck sprain or neck strain. This common type of neck injury happens when the neck jolts backward or forward, sharply and suddenly. Whiplash due to a motor vehicle collision or another injury can strain your muscles or damage soft tissues in your neck. 

What causes a whiplash?

Whiplash typically occurs when your head is forcefully and quickly thrown backward and then forward. This motion can injure bones in the spine, disks between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves and other tissues of the neck.

A whiplash injury may result from:

  • Auto accidents. Rear-end collisions are a major cause of whiplash.
  • Physical abuse or assault. Whiplash can occur if you are punched or shaken. It’s one of the injuries seen in shaken baby syndrome.
  • Contact sports. Football tackles and other sports-related collisions can sometimes cause whiplash.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of whiplash usually develop within days of the injury, and may include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Worsening of pain with neck movement
  • Loss of range of motion in the neck
  • Headaches, most often starting at the base of the skull
  • Tenderness or pain in the shoulder, upper back or arms
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Some people also have:

  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Depression

Diagnosis

Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, tests for whiplash may include the following. Many whiplash injuries include damage to soft tissue that can’t be seen on X-rays:

  • X-ray. Electromagnetic energy beams produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Large magnets and a computer make detailed images of organs and soft tissue structures in your body.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan. X-rays and computer technology make horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of your body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of your body, including your bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

Treatment

Your healthcare provider at Westminster Ortho Med Clinic, DHCC, Dubai will determine specific treatment for whiplash, based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of your injury
  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of your injury
  • Your opinion or preference

Pain management

Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments to lessen pain:

  • Rest. Rest may be helpful for a day or two after your injury, but too much bed rest may delay recovery.
  • Heat or cold. Either heat or cold applied to the neck for 15 minutes every three hours or so can help you feel better.
  • Over-the-counter pain medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), often can control mild to moderate whiplash pain.
  • Prescription medications. People with more-severe pain may be given certain antidepressant drugs that have been shown to relieve nerve pain.
  • Muscle relaxants. Short-term use of these drugs may be recommended to loosen tight muscles and soothe pain. The medicine also can make you feel sleepy. It may be used to help restore normal sleep if pain prevents you from getting a good night’s rest.
  • Injections. An injection of lidocaine (Xylocaine) — a numbing medicine — into painful muscle areas may be used to decrease pain so that you can do physical therapy.

Exercise

Your doctor will likely prescribe a series of stretching and movement exercises for you to do at home. These exercises can help restore range of motion in your neck and get you back to your normal activities. Applying moist heat to the painful area or taking a warm shower may be recommended before exercise.

Exercises may include:

  • Rotating your neck in both directions
  • Tilting your head side to side
  • Bending your neck toward your chest
  • Rolling your shoulders

Physical therapy

If you have ongoing whiplash pain or need assistance with range-of-motion exercises, your doctor may recommend that you see a physical therapist. Physical therapy can help you feel better and may prevent further injury. Your physical therapist will guide you through exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve posture and restore normal movement.

In some cases, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may be used. TENS applies a mild electric current to the skin. Limited research suggests this treatment may temporarily ease neck pain and improve muscle strength.

The number of physical therapy sessions needed will vary from person to person. Your physical therapist can also create a personalized exercise routine that you can do at home.

Foam collars

Soft foam cervical collars were once commonly used for whiplash injuries to hold the neck and head still. However, studies have shown that keeping the neck still for long periods of time can decrease muscle strength and interfere with recovery.

Still, use of a collar to limit movement may help reduce pain soon after your injury, and may help you sleep at night. Recommendations for using a collar vary though. Some experts suggest limiting use to no more than 72 hours, while others say it may be worn up to three hours a day for a few weeks. Your doctor can instruct you on how to properly use the collar, and for how long.

Alternative medicine

Nontraditional therapies have been tried to treat whiplash pain, but research about how well they work is limited. Some include:

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture involves inserting ultrafine needles through specific areas on your skin. It may offer some relief from neck pain.
  • Chiropractic care. A chiropractor performs joint manipulation techniques. There is some evidence that chiropractic care may provide pain relief when paired with exercise or physical therapy. Manipulation of the spine may cause minor problems, such as numbness or dizziness, and rarely damage to spinal tissues.
  • Massage. Neck massage may provide short-term relief of neck pain from whiplash injury.
  • Mind-body therapies. Exercises that incorporate gentle movements and a focus on breathing and mindfulness, such as tai chi, qi gong and yoga, may help ease pain and stiffness.

Should you require additional information or would like to make an appointment with our Consultant Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Ishrat Khan Pain Consultant Dr. Tarek Sultan OR Physical Therapists,  Anil Daniel,  OR Hadel Radwan  please call us or e-mail us at info@westminsterclinic.ae

Reference:

  • clevelandclinic.org
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine
  • orthoinfo.aaos.org – American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
  • Mayoclinic.org

Disclaimer: All contents on this site are for general information and in no circumstances information be substituted for professional advice from the relevant healthcare professional, Writer does not take responsibility of any damage done by the misuse or use of the information.

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