Whiplash can occur in car accidents when the head forcefully and rapidly jerks back and forth. This injury primarily affects the neck and can result in a range of symptoms, many of them painful, long-lasting and expensive.
It is important to recognize the signs of whiplash and take appropriate steps if you suspect you are suffering from it.
What is whiplash?
Whiplash, also known as neck sprain or neck strain, is a soft tissue injury that affects the ligaments, muscles and tendons in the neck. It typically occurs when a sudden force causes the head to move beyond its normal range of motion, leading to strain or injury in the neck.
How whiplash occurs in car accidents
About 3 million people have whiplash per year in the United States, with rear-end car accidents being the most common cause. It can happen in other types of car accidents as well.
The sequence of events in a car accident that can lead to whiplash includes rapid deceleration. This is when a vehicle experiences a sudden strike from behind. The car experiences a rapid deceleration. However, occupants’ heads remain momentarily in their original positions due to inertia.
The deceleration of the vehicle soon throws people’s heads backward, followed by rapid forward motions resembling the cracking of a whip. This abrupt movement puts immense strain on the neck’s soft tissues.
The forceful back-and-forth movement can result in the stretching or tearing of neck muscles, ligaments and tendons, leading to whiplash.
Recognizing whiplash symptoms
Individuals involved in car accidents should be vigilant for symptoms of whiplash, which may not manifest immediately but can develop over the following hours or days. Common symptoms include:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Headaches, typically at the base of the skull
- Shoulder and upper back pain
- Reduced range of motion in the neck
- Dizziness or vertigo
Tingling or numbness in the arms and difficulty concentrating are also possible.
What to do if you suspect whiplash
Even if your symptoms seem minor initially, see a health care professional for an evaluation. Whiplash can have delayed onset, and prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent complications.
Follow your health care provider’s treatment plan, which may include rest, physical therapy, pain management and exercises to strengthen the neck. Keep records of your medical appointments, treatment and expenses related to your whiplash injury. These documents may be important if you need to file an insurance claim.