Whiplash is probably the most common injury in car crashes and is the
result of sudden acceleration and deceleration - a whip-like movement
- typically when the vechicle is hit from behind - often no more than
a common 'fender bender' type incident. Whiplash is a rare exception
to the general rule about back pain affecting mostly older people -
whiplash is common across all age groups.
It occurs when the soft spinal tissue in the neck area is stretched
and strained when the head is violently thrown about. While it mostly
occurs with the head and neck being snapped forward and then backwards,
it can follow a side swipe accident. It can also occur in cycle crashes,
diving and other sporting activities.
What are the symptoms?
It may take several hours or even longer for any symptoms to appear.
There may be a general stiffness of the neck and head, sometimes accompanied
by headaches. There may be moderate or severe pain in the neck. It will
usually pass after a week or so but may last much longer. About 60%
of whiplash injuries clear completely but some people may suffer reoccurences
over many years.
Is whiplash dangerous?
Get immediate medical
advice if you experience severe pains in the back of the head, pins
and needles in the shoulders and arms or notice a sensation of heaviness
in the arms. Likewise, any memory loss or period of unconsciousness
should set alarm bells ringing. Don't just worry about it - get expert
What can you do about whiplash injury?
Early treatment is best. In the first 24 hours apply a cold
wheat bag or an ice bag directly to the neck, for periods of 20
minutes or so. This will help to relieve the inflammation. In an emergency,
use a bag of frozen peas which will mould easilly around the neck.
The bag can be wrapped in a towel or cloth to avoid direct contact
between the skin and the ice ( not necessary with a wheat
bag which is already wrapped). Try laying in bed with your neck
resting on the cold bag for 20 minutes at a time, with your head supported
by a pillow.
If a cold pack doesn't work, try a heated
Painkillers are usually helpful. Take them regularly until the pain
eases rather than just when your pain is bad. Taking them regularly
may prevent the pain from getting too severe, and should allow you to
exercise and keep your neck active.
Full strength Paracetamol (eg Panadol) may be sufficient. Adult dosage
is two 500 mg tablets, four times a day.
NSAID's - non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Some people find that
these work better than paracetamol. They include Ibuprofen which you
can buy at a chemists. It is always a good idea to tell your pharmacist
what the problem is - he or she may be able to suggest other options.
Stronger painkillers such as codeine may be an option if anti-inflammatories
fail to work. Codeine is often taken in addition to paracetamol.
Your GP may perscribe muscle relaxants like diazepam if the pain is
severe or persists more than a few days.
Exercise your neck and keep active!
Unfortunately, there is no single treatment for whiplash which is widely
accepted among doctors. Earlier practice was to support the neck in
a surgical collar and rest the neck whenever possible. Current thinking,
where there is no suspicion of a fracture or dislocation, tends towards
early exercise and a resumption of normal activities. This is thought
to lead to a quicker recovery.
For most people the injury will simply pass after a short period,
but you can always seek further advice on exercise and recovery from
a physiotherapist or chiropractor.
A few people may develop what is known as whiplash syndrome. They suffer
continual headaches and pain, reduced movement at the back of the neck,
tingling in the arms, lumbar pains, fatigue, sleep disruptions and reduced
Whiplash syndrome is difficult to treat. The essence of the treatment
is to prevent any further strain and encourage a quick return to normal
Unfortunately, in a very small number of people who have experienced
a severe whiplash injury, symptoms can persist for months or even years
before settling and even then there can be residual long-term neck discomfort.
My own experience of Whiplash
The pain started about 18 hours after a minor motoring 'incident'. It
was so severe that I went directly to a well respected local Physiotherapist
and he started me immediately on a twice daily treatment of exposure
to heat lamps followed by traction. He also prepared a surgical collar
which I wore day and night. Relief from the pain was immediate following
each treatment, but actual recovery was spread over several months.
It seems I was one of the unfortunates who go on to develop whiplash
syndrome. Mostly now I am without discomfort but even 30 years after
the event I still have to move carefully, can easilly 'put my neck out'
- I don't know how better to describe it - and I do need to take pain
killers and anti-inflamatories at times.
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