Whiplash is a term that describes a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.
It often occurs after a sudden impact such as a road traffic accident (see below). The vigorous movement of the head overstretches and damages the tendons and ligaments in the neck.
Tendons are tough, fibrous bands that connect muscles to bone. Ligaments are fibrous connective tissues that link two bones together at a joint.
Common symptoms of whiplash include:
- neck pain and stiffness
- tenderness over the neck muscles
- reduced and painful neck movements
After an accident, it can take a while (six to 12 hours) for the symptoms of whiplash to develop.
The neck pain and stiffness is often worse on the day after the injury and may get worse for several days afterwards.
Causes of whiplash
Road traffic accidents are the main cause of whiplash.
Car and motorcycle accidents often result in whiplash because the sudden stopping force of the collision makes your head move violently.
As whiplash can occur when the head is thrown forwards, backwards or sideways, it can develop after collisions from the front, back or side. Low speed collisions can also cause whiplash.
As well as road traffic accidents, whiplash can also be caused by a sudden blow to the head – for example, during contact sports, such as boxing or rugby.
A slip or fall where the head is suddenly and violently jolted backwards can also cause whiplash, as can being struck on the head by a heavy or solid object.
Whiplash can usually be diagnosed from a description of your symptoms. Tests and scans aren't usually required.
Visit your GP if you've recently been involved in a road accident, or you've had a sudden impact to your head and you have pain and stiffness in your neck.
They'll ask about how the injury happened and details of your symptoms. They may also examine your neck for signs of muscle spasms and tenderness and assess the range of movement in your neck.
Scans, such as X-rays, computerised tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will usually only be carried out if a fracture or other problem is suspected.
Whiplash will usually get better on its own or after some basic treatment.
If you have whiplash, it's better to move your neck rather than keep it still using a neck brace or collar.
Your neck may be painful but keeping it mobile from an early stage will improve its functionality and speed up your recovery.
Painkillers, such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can be used to help relieve the pain.
Whiplash that lasts for six months or more is sometimes known as chronic whiplash or late whiplash syndrome.
Your treatment plan should be based on your symptoms. For example, if you have severe pain, your GP can prescribe a stronger painkiller, such as codeine, or they may recommend physiotherapy.
Read more about how whiplash is treated.
In most cases, whiplash eventually gets better without causing any lasting damage. However, in a small number of cases, the pain can last for six months or longer (chronic whiplash).
Prolonged neck pain may make it difficult for you to carry out daily activities and enjoy your leisure time. It may also cause problems at work and could lead to anxiety and depression.
See your GP if you have chronic neck pain that's causing problems with work and preventing you from carrying out normal, everyday activities.
Read more about the complications of whiplash.