Whiplash: How To Treat It

Whiplash: How To Treat It

Whiplash is a neck injury that occurs when the head is suddenly jerked forward and then backward, putting a strain on the neck's soft tissues. It’s commonly associated with car accidents, though can have various causes. Managing whiplash in the right way is important to help you get the best outcomes and promote long-term neck health. Here’s what you should know, and how your physiotherapist can help.

What Is Whiplash?

Medically known as cervical acceleration-deceleration (CAD) syndrome, whiplash is a neck injury caused by the rapid forward and backward movement of the head. The sudden force can stretch and damage the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the neck, leading to pain and discomfort.

How Long Does Whiplash Take To Heal?

The recovery time for whiplash varies from person to person and depends on the severity of the injury. Mild cases may resolve within a few weeks, while more severe cases might take several months. When you consult with a physiotherapist, they’ll be able to assess the severity of your injury and give you a better estimate based on our experience - presuming you closely follow your evidence-based rehab plan.

How Is Whiplash Caused?

Whiplash is primarily caused by motor vehicle accidents, but it can also result from sports injuries, falls and other collisions. The sudden, forceful movement of the head and neck can strain or tear the soft tissues, causing whiplash. This can result in symptoms such as neck pain, stiffness, headaches, dizziness, and even difficulty concentrating. Proper safety measures, such as wearing seat belts and using headrests, can help reduce the risk of whiplash in car accidents.

How Long Should I Be Off Work With Whiplash?

This really does depend on the type of job you have and how severe your injury is. Rest is crucial in the initial stages of your recovery and this can look different to everyone. You may need to either have a short break from work, be on modified work duties, or make ergonomic adjustments to best support your recovery as you return to work. Your physiotherapist will be able to give you tailored advice here on your personal circumstances following your assessment.

Is Whiplash Instant?

While the impact causing whiplash is sudden, the symptoms may not manifest immediately. It's common for symptoms like neck pain, stiffness, and headaches to appear within 24 hours or even days after the incident. This is why it’s still important to be assessed even if you appear to have no symptoms immediately following your injury, as well as take extra care of your head, neck and shoulders in the aftermath of the incident.

What Happens If Whiplash Goes Untreated?

Untreated whiplash can lead to chronic (ongoing) neck pain, headaches, and other long-term complications. It may also contribute to the development of conditions such as cervical radiculopathy (a pinched nerve in the neck) or myelopathy (a type of spinal cord injury).

How Can I Fix Whiplash?

A good approach to managing whiplash is booking in to see your doctor or physiotherapist as soon as you’re able, they will guide you through your recovery. In the meantime, apply these principles:

  • Refrain from engaging in physical activities, such as workouts, heavy lifting, or any activities that may further strain your neck.
  • When lying down, ensure proper support for your neck and back, either on the sofa or using strategically placed pillows.
  • Try heat and ice to help relieve whiplash pain. Individual preferences may vary, with some finding ice more beneficial, and others favouring heat. For the first three days after the injury, apply ice for 5 minutes or use heat on the affected area for up to 15 minutes, repeating approximately every two hours. To prevent skin irritation, wrap the ice or heat source in a tea towel.
  • While it's important to rest the affected area and avoid activities that may worsen the condition, steering clear of complete bed rest and full immobilisation is equally important. Maintain movement within your pain threshold, as it helps to promote blood circulation and muscle mobility to best support your recovery.
  • Consider the use of painkillers where appropriate, following the guidance of a pharmacist or doctor, to manage discomfort associated with whiplash.
  • Embrace relaxation techniques to prevent the instinctive tensing into pain and adopt specific postures to shield your neck. These practices can hinder recovery and lead to the development of unfavourable patterns. Allow yourself to relax and focus on maintaining a more neutral posture conducive to healing.

Physiotherapy is a key component of whiplash treatment. A qualified physiotherapist will design a personalised rehabilitation plan that may include gentle exercises to improve neck mobility and flexibility, targeted exercises to strengthen neck muscles and support the spine, hands-on techniques, such as massage or joint mobilisation, to alleviate muscle tension and improve mobility, education about preventing further damage or re-injury in the future, a neck collar (or referral to get one) if appropriate, and more.

How Do You Know If You Have Whiplash?

If you've been involved in a motor vehicle accident or experienced any sudden impact that jerked your head, be vigilant for symptoms such as neck pain, stiffness, headaches, and dizziness. If you notice these signs, book in for a thorough examination and diagnosis at your earliest convenience.

Concerned about whiplash or were recently involved in an accident that applied sudden stop-start force to your head and neck? Our Hong Kong physiotherapy team is here to help. Book your appointment online here.