Spinal Injuries: Whiplash Explained

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what does whiplash feel like

Whiplash is an injury that occurs when the soft tissue in your spine is stretched and strained after your body has been thrown into a forceful and sudden jerk.

This injury is the one that is most common in car crashes that involve sudden deceleration. However, this injury can also occur in other physical activities that are considered strenuous such as diving.

How Common is Whiplash?

More than 400,000 people each year typically make an insurance claim involving whiplash. It is the most common non-lethal injury related to a car crash.

Around four individuals per thousand will experience the symptoms of whiplash every year. These injuries occur at speeds of under 15 miles per hour. Only 20 percent of individuals with this condition will still be experiencing symptoms after one year.

How Does Whiplash Feel?

The most frequent complaints related to the condition of whiplash are stiffness in the neck and back of the head as well as headaches.

These symptoms can manifest immediately after an injury or can take a few days to manifest. In addition, you may also experience a “pins and needles” sensation in your hands, arms, and shoulders.

While whiplash typically is not a dangerous condition, you should seek medical assistance immediately if you or someone you know is experiencing loss of memory or unconsciousness after an injury resulting in whiplash.

Medical attention is critical if the individual is experiencing any severe pains in the back of their head, this “pins and needles” sensation in their arms and/or shoulders, and has a feeling of heaviness in their arms.

Can Whiplash Be Self-Treated?

Within the first 24 hours following an injury, an ice pack should be applied to the neck in order to relieve any inflammation.

The ice pack should be wrapped in a cloth or towel in order to avoid direct contact with the skin and the ice- this will help avoid ice burn.

The individual should lie down with their head resting on the ice bag for approximately 20 minutes and their head supported with a pillow.

If OTC pain medications are not helping, you should contact your physician about what to do. Following are a few exercises you can use to relieve the stiffness and pain in the neck and back of the head.

Start by standing against the wall or door with your head facing forward. Move your eyes so that you look towards the 2, 4, 8, and 10 o’clock positions.

This should be repeated a few times, as this eye movement causes some slight movement of the deep muscles in the back of the head.

Then, take a step forward and bend your head carefully forward as if you were taking a bow. Return to the starting position with your head straight, facing forward.

Bring your chin towards your neck, carefully bending your head forward. Then, return to the starting position and bend your head backwards so that you’re looking at the ceiling.

Tilt your head to the right, so that your right ear is near your right shoulder. If at all possible, keep your glance at a fixed point. Return to the starting position and tilt head to the left.

Turn your head as if you were trying to look backwards over your shoulder, first to one side and then to the other. Imagine you are following a horizontal line on the wall.

Diagnosing Whiplash

Typically, a physician will consider the background of the injury (what caused it) as well as the individual’s description of the symptoms they are experiencing.

Whiplash is not a condition that is revealed with an x-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan. However, an x-ray will be used if the physician suspects a dislocation or a fracture of the cervical spine.

Recovery From Whiplash

Research has revealed that individuals with this condition who wear a soft collar and take several weeks to rest will actually recover much more slowly than those individuals who try to get back to a normal routine.

Individuals who have acute pain in their cervical spine are advised to get started with neck exercises as soon as they can and to get out of bed within 2-3 days.

You can do exercises on your own at home and/or under the care of a physical therapist. Typically, these exercises should be done 3 to 5 times each day. Pain medications are often used in addition to an exercise program.

Outlook of Whiplash

While the risk of after-effects due to whiplash is very small and the chances of a total recovery are excellent, you should be aware that whiplash is still considered a strain injury and does bring with it the potential for the pain to last for several months.

There are a few people that will develop problems that continue after they experience this condition. This is referred to as whiplash syndrome.

These individuals will continue to experience pain and headaches, tingling in their arms, disruptions in sleep, fatigue, a reduction in movement at the back of their neck, and a reduction in libido.

Whiplash syndrome can be very difficult to treat, as the whole goal of treatment is to prevent further strain and to encourage the individual to return to their everyday activities as quickly as possible.

In a very small group of individuals who have experienced a whiplash injury, the signs and symptoms can last for several months or even years before settling down- even then, they may experience neck discomfort over the long-term.

Treating Whiplash

The truth is that there is not much agreement among physicians about the best treatment to use for whiplash.

If there is no possibility of a dislocation or fracture of the cervical spine, the individual should begin to pursue their normal activities and exercise as soon as possible.

However, in some cases, they will need to supplement these activities with pain medications- but keep in mind that medications should only be used for a short period of time and you should consult with your physician before using anything.

For most individuals, this injury will pass after a short period of time- but if you need more advice on what to do, you can contact a physical therapist or even a chiropractor.