How to Care for a Whiplash Injury

whiplashIn the United States, there are an estimated 3 million new whiplash injuries each year with 35-50% of these victims suffering from long-term pain and around 14% becoming disabled. Given the prevalence of this type of injury, it’s important to understand what it is, how to recognize signs of injury, the leading causes, and how to care for it.

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash, or neck strain, is a common injury resulting from the force of sudden acceleration-deceleration caused by rapid, unrestrained forward and backward movement of a person’s head and neck.

When this occurs, the structures in your neck including discs, ligaments, nerves or muscles, are damaged. In some cases, a small vessel may even tear and release inflammatory substances in the neck causing swelling and pain.

What is the Leading Cause?

Auto collisions are one of the leading causes of whiplash, and in Oregon, vehicle-wildlife collisions will increase significantly during the upcoming fall and winter months. In the last decade, the number of motorists hitting deer, elk, coyotes, bears and other wildlife has skyrocketed.

Statistically, one out of every 17 car collisions in the United States involves wandering wildlife, with a collision occurring on average every 39 minutes. Thanks to Oregon’s sprawling national forests and thriving wildlife populations, the likelihood of a collision is higher than in other parts of the country. The upsurge is likely due to increases in distracted drivers (cell phone use) and higher numbers of wildlife on and near roadways caused by weather conditions.

If you find yourself in an auto-wildlife collision, or any type of collision, learn to recognize the signs of whiplash.

What are the Signs of Injury?

Usually, the signs and symptoms of whiplash develop within 24 hours of the injury, but not ways. These may include:

  •       ­Neck pain
  •       Muscle spasms
  •       Decreased range of motion
  •       Neck stiffness
  •       Headache, most often starting at the base of the skull
  •       Dizziness
  •       Fatigue
  •       Pain (or tenderness) in the shoulder, upper back or arms
  •       Tingling or numbness in the arms

Some people may also experience blurred vision, ringing in the ears, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, irritability, memory disturbances, anxiety or depression.

How is Whiplash Diagnosed?

You should always consult a physician if you have neck pain or other symptoms after a car accident, sports injury or another traumatic injury to make sure there isn’t another underlying major spinal injury or condition.

Based on your symptoms and examination findings, a doctor may place a collar on the neck to offer additional support and prevent further injuries. He or she may also request a computed tomography (CT) scan or x-ray to check for more serious injury. A magnetic resonance image (MRI) may also be requested if there is concern about soft tissue injury.

What is the Treatment for Whiplash?

Until you are able to see a physician, an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve), may help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. You can also apply heat, rather than cold, to help loosen tight muscles.

Upon diagnosis, a doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories and/or muscle relaxers. The treatment of whiplash can vary depending on the symptoms present.

If there is no evidence of abnormal spine alignment or other major injuries that would require extended immobilization, the likely course of treatment will involve a series of at-home exercises that include stretching, rotating and moving the neck back and forth.

Contact Pacific Spine

Most people who experience whiplash will feel better within a few weeks. However, some may continue to have chronic pain for several months or years after the initial injury. If you are experiencing ongoing, chronic pain in the neck or back, complete Pacific Spine’s patient self-referral form. Our new patient coordinator will contact you within 1-2 business days to speak with you about your symptoms.