Whiplash injury results in pain and disability of the muscles, joints and ligaments within the cervical spine (neck and upper back) due to forceful, rapid back-and-forth (acceleration deceleration) movement of the spine. Whiplash most often occurs during motor vehicle accidents, but the injury can also result from a sports incidents or other types of trauma. This type of injury to the neck can be quite debilitating with some studies have shown that up to 50% of car crash related whiplash can result in long term issues. What is often not mentioned however is many of the sufferers of long term pain, are those who are not cared for in the early days and weeks after whiplash. Most people with whiplash get better within weeks by following a treatment plan that includes exercise and physical therapy. The sooner it is assessed and treatment begins, usually the better the outcome.
What are the symptoms of Whiplash?
Common symptoms of whiplash associated disorders are spasm in the muscles of the neck, upper and low back and the sensation of stiffness with range of motion, especially looking and bending up and down. These symptoms occur as a result of whiplash in the spine as the muscles try to protect the spinal structures. Often whiplash patients report feeling fine immediately after the incident but muscle soreness and stiffness creeps in 24-48 hours later. Whiplash symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, tenderness to touch, soreness with looking up, down, left or right and may also extend from the neck to the back and shoulders depending on how the whiplash has occurred.
Will I recover from Whiplash?
The neck seems to be a problem area for many, as it can be a complicated area when you look at every single little thing that could go wrong – It can be overwhelming! The good news is that although your neck can move in many different ways, it is incredibly strong! So although a painful neck can heavily impact daily living initially, the structures of the neck are stable and supportive, even after whiplash injuries.
Some reasons for ongoing neck pain after whiplash injury is inactivity and fear of movement, where chronic whiplash patients can become hesitant to exercise again. This results in muscles becoming weaker and tighter over time and joints feeling stiffer. We also know that the more pain and disability experienced after the initial whiplash injury, the longer it may take to settle. This is why it is critical to engage in the appropriate therapy which should include home exercises and an active approach to your management. Other factors that affect neck pain and contribute to ongoing pain are related to the experience of a traumatic event such as anxiety following a motor vehicle accident where the accident took place and the stress of any legal involvement or insurance disputes.
It is also important to highlight that a number of factors are not correlated with ongoing pain or disability after whiplash injuries. Age and gender are examples of simple factors which have been found to have no impact on the severity or length of injury. Factors that can be hard to believe however is that the type of car accident or results upon scans or imaging also do not correlate with what someone will experience long term. This means that whiplash patients with what can seem like a minor accident can still experience high levels of pain and those in severe accidents can recover relatively quickly. Scans and images are great to show us every little detail about our body but unfortunately they do not tell us much about pain. This is where scan results must be looked at clinically by a trained health professional such as a physiotherapist, who can also screen for factors which do impact the management and outcome of recovery.
How is Whiplash treated?
Management of whiplash includes various treatment options, including hands on therapy with an over-arching active approach to recovery. Here are common services physiotherapy has to offer patients with whiplash:
Manual Therapy – This is such an effective tool to reduce pain initially and to get you feeling like you can move again, BUT…it shouldn’t last forever and you should also have a home exercise program that promotes that same movement that manual therapy enables.
Mobility – It is essential that we get your spine and muscles moving through their full range of motion again. Our aim is to achieve this as soon as possible to prevent further issues that you may face in the future from not using it! Have you ever had your arm or leg in a cast? How incredibly hard was it to bend your elbow/knee when you got it off? It was so stiff and painful right? What about muscle wastage, they also get smaller and weaker! It’s the same with your neck, if you guard the movements, everything else around it will tighten up and then normal neck movements will become restricted and painful
Muscle Strength – I say it over and over, but that’s because no proper neck treatment can be complete without a strengthening program. In order to fix your neck pain and prevent future issues, we need to work together to strengthen the muscles that support your neck and low back. When your neck and back muscles are weak, they get tired easily and that makes them spasm and, what happens when muscles are overworked and spasm? You got it! They become painful!
What Can I Do To Help My Recovery After Whiplash?
- Stay active. Gentle movements and exercise at home are a great way for the muscles and joints to stay happy and healthy
- Seek advice from an expert in helping people recover from whiplash like our physiotherapists
- Discuss any concerns, fears and anxiety around the event that contributed to the whiplash injury with your team of health professionals as this can be important for a full recovery
- Progress home exercises to loaded exercises to provide a well rounded management for pain relief
How long should I be off work for whiplash?
Whiplash can sometimes take a few days to become apparent following an injury and the pain can last many months, even years, depending on the severity of the initial whiplash injury. There is no specified time that you will be off work, however your healthcare practitioner should give you a medical clearance prior to your return to work.