A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

What you need to know about whiplash

Ortho - Whiplash

Whiplash injuries commonly stem from car accidents and affect around one million people annually in the US alone.

Whiplash injuries commonly stem from motor vehicle accidents and affect around one million people annually in the United States alone. However, for such a common injury, there are still many misconceptions about what whiplash is and how it should be treated.

Two Marshfield Clinic Health System physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians explain.

“If people get hurt in a motor vehicle accident, they may think that it’s going to be a permanent injury,” said Dr. Swati Biswas. “But in reality, a majority of whiplash patients get better.”

Dr. Maya Batthika, adds that most patients recover in 2-3 months. “And after two years, 82% of patients are free of any symptoms related to their whiplash injury,” she said.

What is whiplash and its symptoms?

“Whiplash is caused by the passive movement of the neck secondary to the acceleration-deceleration that occurs during collisions,” said Batthika. “It is most likely to occur from rear end impacts during car accidents but can also occur from contact during sports.”

Battikha stated that whiplash can lead to a variety of neck injuries and can affect the muscles, joints, discs and ligaments in that area. “Cervical pain is the most common symptom of whiplash,” she said.

Whiplash may also lead to other health conditions — and those could be a sign of something serious.

“If a person has symptoms involving their upper extremities or they have neurological deficits, that could be worrisome and they should look into seeing a doctor,” said Dr. Biswas.

Dr. Biswas also noted some potential warning signs, including:

  • Weakness or numbness in arms or legs.
  • Difficulty with bladder or bowel.
  • Pain that goes from the neck to the arm.

How is whiplash treated?

A variety of treatment methods are available depending on the severity and duration of the injury.

If you are experiencing common symptoms such as cervical pain, the first steps your doctor may advise include:

  • Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Application of ice or heat on the pain areas.
  • A short period of relative rest after the injury.

If pain persists or additional symptoms are present, additional treatment methods may be taken. These may include:

Dr. Biswas notes some common misconceptions regarding treatment.

“Some people get massages or go to the chiropractor and have manipulations,” she said. “However, these are not helpful for whiplash injuries. It’s best to perform gentle range of motion of the neck throughout the day instead of forceful movement.”

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