Whiplash is a type of spraining or straining neck injury. It can be associated with bony injuries or damage to the discs. It most commonly occurs from violent front to back shaking of the type caused by a car collision. Longstanding neck pain and spasm are the most common complaints.

Car accidents and whiplash

Whiplash is most frequently caused by an abrupt and violent forward and back shaking of the head. This causes tears or rips in the muscles or ligaments. The tears, in turn, become inflamed and painful.


Problems from whiplash usually begin a few hours or a few days after injury. They can happen immediately and are occasionally delayed for up to weeks. The commonest complaints are:

  • Neck pain
  • Neck Spasm and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Shoulder pain
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Arm or hand pain or numbness


Most whiplash injuries damage the muscles and ligaments. Neither muscles nor ligaments are seen on X-ray. Although muscle and ligamentous injuries may be seen on CT or MRI, in many cases, all of the scans are negative. If there is an injury to a bone or disc, that will be seen on the scans.

Because the films may be “normal,” whiplash is diagnosed by history and examination. If you have had an accident and have spasm in the neck and shoulders, the diagnosis is established.


Symptoms from whiplash may be transient and self limiting. They may last for months or years. Analgesics and stretching are usually recommended first. Physical therapy or chiropractic care are often helpful. Acupuncture and acupressure may be of benefit. Trigger point injections may relieve spasm. If there is a damaged disc associated with arm pain, epidural injections may help. Surgery is reserved for those with severe symptoms associated with numbness and weakness.

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Last modified: 07/27/08