How to Treat Pain from Whiplash

A man experiences whiplash symptoms after a car accident.

Whiplash is an injury to the neck caused by a rapid and forceful back and forth movement of the head — sort of like cracking a whip. Common causes are rear-ending car accidents, sports injuries, and physical abuse. A mighty sneeze can even cause whiplash.

Symptoms can develop within days of the injury. They commonly include stiffness, pain, and loss of motion in the neck. There can be tenderness, pain, tingling, and numbness in the shoulder, back, and arms. Headaches starting at the base of the skull are common. You may also experience fatigue and dizziness. Additionally, some people report blurry vision, tinnitus, irritability, and difficulty sleeping or concentrating.

 

Should You See a Doctor?

While whiplash often resolves itself within a couple of weeks, it is important to see a doctor following any traumatic injury resulting in whiplash symptoms, as there may be fractures or other damage that could progress to greater problems. In some people, the pain can continue for months or even years. The risk factors for a more difficult recovery include older patients, patients with previously existing neck pain or low back pain, patients who have experienced whiplash before, and those involved in more high-speed injuries.

How is Whiplash Treated?

Whiplash treatment is often simple. As long as greater complications and risks have been ruled out, doctors will prescribe an over-the-counter pain relief medication. Tylenol or aspirin should be strong enough, although doctors will sometimes suggest muscle relaxants if spasms are a problem.

 

Physical Therapy for Whiplash

Physical therapy for whiplash is also important. Therapists will use passive treatments such as massage and hot/cold therapies for pain relief. Ultrasound is sometimes used to increase blood circulation and reduce spasms, stiffness, cramping, and pain.

Passive treatments are just the first step, though. Your physical therapist will encourage active exercises as soon as you are ready. These are designed to improve your strength and range of motion and are specific to your own individual case — you don’t want to follow some other random patient’s exercise protocol, as every injury is different. Example exercises you might be prescribed include chin tucks or turning the head from side to side to work on your range of motion. Going for a gentle walk can also be helpful. A walk will increase the blood flow to damaged tissues, and the natural rotation of the spine as you swing your arms helps ease you toward recovery faster than spending the day lying on your back.

If you’ve been in an accident that involves multiple injuries — such as treating low back pain in addition to whiplash — a visit to a physical therapist can be invaluable. It should be scheduled as soon as possible.

 

What Should You Avoid?

For the most part, you should listen to your body. Don’t do things that hurt. Avoid heavy lifting and strenuous activity and avoid sitting in one position for long periods or spending the day in bed. Try to return to regular activities without overdoing it gradually.

 

How Long Does Whiplash Treatment Take?

The length of recovery depends on the severity of the accident and your compliance with instructions from your physical therapist. For minor cases, a couple of weeks should be enough. But six to twelve weeks or more are possible for major injuries.

Rehabilitating at home shouldn’t be difficult as long as you keep in contact with your PT and follow any updated guidance as your condition changes.