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Often associated with automobile accidents, whiplash is a common cause of neck pain that may result in injuries that can produce discomfort ranging from temporary soreness to lingering and debilitating pain. Your experience with whiplash, also referred to as neck strain or sprain, will depend on several factors, including the extent of the initial impact and the specific joints, vertebrae, discs, muscles, ligaments, and nerves affected.

Whiplash Has Many Potential Causes

Whiplash is defined as a sudden back and forth motion of the head affecting the neck. Other than a car accident, this type of injury may be caused by a hard fall, contact while playing sports, or a sudden, forceful neck turn.

Symptoms May Be Delayed

Symptoms related to whiplash may not be immediately felt after the initial trauma to the neck. Pain may develop within 24-48 hours as swelling and inflammation slowly increase and affect nerve roots. If whiplash damages joints or bones within the neck itself, pain may be immediate or become evident when attempts are made to make normal neck movements. The following symptoms may be associated with whiplash:

  • Neck stiffness and pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Radiating pain in shoulders and arms
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Increased fatigue or difficulty sleeping
  • Numbness or pain sensations extending to the arms and hands


Oftentimes, whiplash results in soft tissue damage, which cannot be detected on a normal x-ray. Instead, MRI or CT scans are usually done to identify damage to ligaments, muscles, and discs within the neck that may be contributing to whiplash symptoms.

No Standard Treatment

Treatment for whiplash is focused on treating the presented symptoms. Recommended medications for neck pain and related discomfort may include the short-term use of prescription pain medications, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and muscle relaxants. The application of heat or ice, injections directly into the affected area, and massage therapy sometimes provide relief. Physical therapy may involve gentle exercises to restore range of motion as neck muscles recovery. Surgery is rarely necessary, but may become an option if there is damage to the cervical spine or discs.

Icing tends to be more effective at easing swelling and soreness and has replaced bracing as the treatment often recommended to treat whiplash within the first 24 hours. If you are experiencing severe or worsening symptoms following treatment attempts, however, you may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon for further evaluation