Whiplash

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is whiplash?

Whiplash is a vivid term that accurately describes how this neck injury occurs: The head whips back-and-forth or side-to-side with force and causes a sprained neck. When the head gets whipped about like this, various neck bones (vertebrae), muscles, ligaments and nerves can be stretched or otherwise damaged. This type of whiplash injury usually causes immediate pain followed by neck stiffness.

Because auto collisions account for most whiplash cases, anyone who drives or rides in a car is at risk for experiencing whiplash. Participating in contact sports also increases the risk. Infants and small children, whose heads are disproportionately heavy and their necks very delicate, have a higher risk of severe injury from an episode of whiplash.

For adults, whiplash symptoms usually subside with conservative treatments. Similar to other strains and sprains, the soft tissues need time to heal. Babies and children run a risk of experiencing long-term effects of whiplash after being shaken. These effects might include permanent nerve damage and delayed learning due to brain trauma that can occur in conjunction with the whipping motion.

Infants require immediate medical attention for any type of whiplash injury. Call 911 for immediate medical care. An adult who experiences neck pain and stiffness after an injury should be promptly evaluated to rule out broken vertebrae (spinal fracture) or other trauma to the cervical spine. Left untreated, a severe whiplash injury could result in permanent loss of sensation or movement.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

The signs of whiplash can vary slightly from person to person. Severe whiplash symptoms may be immediately apparent, while other signs may arise within the first 24 hours.

Common symptoms of whiplash in an adult

The most common symptoms of a whiplash injury in an adult are:

  • Blurry vision

  • Headaches

  • Loss of range of motion in the neck

  • Muscle spasms in the neck and shoulder area

  • Numbness or tingling in the shoulders or arms

  • Pain and stiffness in the neck, upper back or shoulders including pain that worsens with neck movement

  • Ringing in the ears

Symptoms of whiplash in an infant or toddler

Small children may exhibit different signs and symptoms of whiplash that incorporate elements of shaken baby syndrome. Be alert for:

  • Bulge on the top of the head where the ‘soft spot’ should be

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Disinterest in feeding or inability to suck

  • Excessive drowsiness or inability to wake the child up

  • Extreme irritability or fussiness

  • Seizures

  • Unequal pupil sizes

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

All symptoms that could be related to whiplash in an infant or toddler should be considered life threatening. Call 911 for immediate medical intervention.

For adults who have been involved in a serious car accident or other situation involving whiplash, be alert to these potentially life-threatening symptoms of broken vertebrae in the neck:

  • Difficulty or inability to breathe

  • Inability to move the fingers or toes and other paralysis symptoms

  • Loss of sensation below the chest

What causes whiplash?

The most common cause of a whiplash injury is an automobile accident. Both rear-end and broadside collisions can cause the head to whip, damaging the bones, muscles, ligaments or nerves of the neck. A whiplash injury can occur even if you are wearing a seatbelt, but using this essential safety item reduces your risk of experiencing other serious injuries in a collision.

Whiplash also can occur during contact sports, such as football in which the head whips backward and contacts the ground. Any activity that causes the neck to bend suddenly from front-to-back or side-to-side can cause whiplash.

Forcefully shaking infants and toddlers can cause whiplash and shaken baby syndrome. Whiplash can be a more severe neck injury in babies and toddlers because the structures in the neck are not as strong in babies and young children as in older children and adults.

What are the risk factors for whiplash?

Risk factors for whiplash include:

  • Age younger than 5 years

  • Driving or riding in automobiles

  • Participating in contact sports

Reducing your risk of whiplash

Ways to reduce your risk of experiencing whiplash include:

  • Always wearing a seatbelt when riding in a car

  • Buckling infants and children into age-appropriate car seats

  • Properly adjusting your vehicle’s headrest to reduce the backwards whipping motion that occurs when your vehicle is rear-ended

If you suspect a whiplash injury, you should seek prompt medical attention to rule out more serious injury like a broken neck (cervical fracture) or brain injury. Infants and toddlers should always be evaluated for any suspected case of whiplash.

How is whiplash treated?

Whiplash treatment may vary slightly depending on the type and extent of the injuries involved. For instance, a mild neck sprain with some muscle soreness may respond well to over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine and nothing more. On the other end of the spectrum, a severe whiplash injury involving a ruptured spinal disc may require surgery. The overall goal of treatment is to reduce whiplash pain, improve neck range-of-motion, and avoid complications like chronic discomfort.

Whiplash treatments may include:

  • Exercises to promote range of motion and flexibility

  • Ice packs to the neck, followed by heat several days later

  • Pain medicine to relieve ligament pain or a subsequent headache

  • Prescription muscle relaxants to reduce spasms

  • Surgery to repair fractured vertebrae or other structural injuries

Resting the neck and upper back for a prolonged period after whiplash can reduce range of motion, as can immobilizing the neck with a foam collar. You should gently move the neck after a whiplash injury to promote healing. Physical therapy and whiplash exercises after an initial period of rest can improve range of motion. Talk with your doctor before beginning any type of exercise after a severe neck sprain or strain.

What are the potential complications of whiplash?

In adults, whiplash rarely leads to serious complications. Some people experience lingering pain or discomfort for months or years after a whiplash injury. A professional medical evaluation as soon as possible after the injury and following the recommended treatment plan will help prevent long-term effects of whiplash.

Whiplash injuries in infants and toddlers, however, can lead to life-long complications due to associated traumatic brain injury. These complications might include:

  • Behavior disorders

  • Cerebral palsy

  • Learning or physical disabilities

  • Seizures

  • Visual, hearing or speech impairment

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Neck Sprain. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00410
  2. Whiplash. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/whiplash/basics/definition/con-20033090
  3. Head and Neck Anatomy Explorer. InnerBody. http://www.innerbody.com/anatomy/muscular/head-neck
  4. Learn More. National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome. https://www.dontshake.org/learn-more