Whiplash Injury: The Neck Trauma at the Root of Your Pain

Written by Bob O'Grady on . Posted in Blog

Whiplash is a common neck injury that often occurs as the result of a motor vehicle accident, particularly a rear-end or side-impact collision. The violent, sudden forward and backward movement of your neck can cause injury to neck muscles, ligaments, discs, bones in the spine, nerve roots, intervertebral (facet) joints and injury to the soft neck tissues.

Injury to the neck and cervical spine can result in various symptoms and severity. Therefore, it’s important to see a medical professional trained in diagnosing whiplash injuries for proper treatment and symptom relief.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Whiplash

Symptoms of whiplash may be temporary or come and go. Pain can occur immediately following the crash or not until days, weeks or even months later. In mild cases, whiplash pain usually goes away within a few days or weeks. Many people recover fully from their injuries within three months.

However, in severe cases, the symptoms of whiplash can be debilitating. Along with neck pain and stiffness, the symptoms of whiplash may include:

  • Nausea
  • Weakness in the arms and legs
  • Shooting pains down the arms, back and legs
  • Facial numbness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Headaches
  • Double vision
  • Bladder incontinence
  • Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (fast heart rate upon standing)

While not as common as other symptoms, whiplash can cause ringing in the ears or cognitive problems such as impaired concentration and memory loss. Insomnia, anxiety and depression often occur in individuals who suffer long-term chronic pain from their injuries.

Getting a Whiplash Diagnosis

In addition to a physical examination to check your neck range of motion, palpate your neck for tenderness and test your reflexes, a doctor may order diagnostic imaging studies. X-ray, CT scan, PET scan or an MRI help rule out degenerative disease or bone fractures that may be the cause of your pain.

These scans also allow the doctor to look for inflammation or damage in the soft tissues of the neck, spinal cord or nerves.

If your doctor suspects the presence of small bone fractures not visible on X-ray, he or she may order a bone scan. But even comprehensive imaging studies don’t always detect injuries in the neck that cause pain.

Knowing the Risk Factors

Low-impact, slow-speed and high-speed collisions can lead to whiplash injuries. How severely you are injured also depends on whether you are wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash. Injuries can range from mild muscle strain to chronic pain and other complications that continue for years after the injury occurs.

Your age increases the risk of whiplash. As you get older, your muscles lose flexibility and your ligaments become less elastic, making injury more likely. If you have neck arthritis, your normal neck movement is even more limited, which can make whiplash pain even worse.

Understanding How Whiplash Injuries Occur

Upon impact, cervical spine ligaments can stretch or tear as your head is thrown back and forth. Problems occur when the neck muscles and ligaments are stretched beyond their normal range of motion. An injury may be limited to the upper vertebrae of the cervical spine or cause damage to the spinal cord and nerve roots, which can lead to neurological impairment.

Many people assume your head has to strike something — such as the seat headrest — for nerve damage to occur. But actually, violent movement of the head is a major contributing factor to whiplash, which can cause pinched nerves and other nerve damage.

Ligament damage can also cause discs to fragment and herniate over time. When this happens, a disc may push on the spinal cord or a nerve root, causing pain and neurological symptoms.

Blows to the head, a fall where your head is jerked violently backward or playing a high-impact sport can also lead to whiplash injury.

Receiving the Proper Treatment

Treatment generally involves over-the-counter or prescription medications to reduce inflammation, pain and swelling. In addition to anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants help relieve painful muscle spasms. If medication fails to control your pain, your doctor may recommend wearing a soft cervical collar for a few days to immobilize the neck.

Although you may need to rest for a day or two following the injury, it’s important to remain as active as you can. You need to keep moving your neck gently so that it doesn’t get stiff.

Your doctor may order physical therapy to improve your range of motion and strengthen the muscles in your neck, shoulders and upper back. Some physical therapy programs include the use of electrical stimulation and therapeutic ultrasound to help reduce pain before starting neck exercises.

For symptoms that last longer because of a more serious injury to the facet joints or discs, trigger point injections and nerve blocks are options for providing pain relief. Trigger point injections usually involve injecting a local anesthetic into tight muscles. Nerve root block injections help relieve pain and stiffness related to pinched nerves or herniated discs caused by whiplash injuries.

When whiplash pain persists or becomes too much to bear, the doctors at Southwest Florida Neurosurgical & Rehab Associates can provide a number of pain management treatments that can help improve your quality of life.