Whiplash is a neck injury caused by a forceful back and forth movement of the neck. This force can injure bones in the spine, discs between the bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and other neck tissues.
Whiplash can also be a lower back injury (lumbar spine) caused by a sharp, sudden, movement of the trunk either forward, backward, or to the side. This force can injure muscles, tendons, and ligaments of the lower back.
Causes of Whiplash
Whiplash can be caused by
- Rear-end Car Accidents
- Sports Accidents
- Physical Abuse
- Other Traumatic Injury (e.g., a fall)
Symptoms of Whiplash (Neck)
The following signs and symptoms of whiplash affecting the neck may occur within days of the injury:
- Neck Pain and Stiffness
- Worsening of Pain with Neck Movement
- Loss of Range of Motion in the Neck
- Headaches Starting at the Base of the Skull
- Tenderness or Pain in the Shoulder, Upper Back, or Arms
- Tingling or Numbness in the Arms
Others may also experience:
- Blurred Vision
- Ringing in the Ears (Tinnitus)
- Sleep Disturbances
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Memory Problems
Symptoms of Whiplash (Lower Back)
The following signs and symptoms of whiplash affecting the lower back may occur within days of the injury:
- Back Pain
- Pain Radiating Down the Buttocks and Legs
- Swelling and Stiffness
- Loss of Range of Motion
- Difficulty Standing or Walking
- Muscle Spasms
- Tingling / Pins and Needles
Risk Factors for Complications
While some people recover from whiplash within a few weeks, others may be at risk for complications if
- They have severe neck pain or weakness/numbness in arms or hands, which may signal ligament damage or instability of the vertebrae.
- They have a more limited range of motion.
- The pain has spread to their arms
- They have had whiplash before.
- They had pre-existing low back or neck pain
- They sustained a previous high-speed injury.
- They are of older age
When to See a Doctor
If you are experiencing neck or lower back pain or other whiplash symptoms, you should contact Dr. Ball promptly at (925) 838-8830 for a complete evaluation to rule out broken bones or other damage that can cause or worsen symptoms.
Seek medical care early to ensure that untreated neck or back pain doesn’t lead to chronic pain and disability in the future.
During your evaluation, Dr. Ball will ask you questions about the event that caused your symptoms and whether your symptoms are severe or occur frequently. He’ll also want to assess if your symptoms are interfering with performing your everyday activities.
Dr. Ball will also conduct a physical exam to assess the following
- Your range of motion in your neck, shoulder, and lower back.
- Your degree of motion that causes pain or an increase in pain.
- The degree of tenderness in your neck, shoulders, upper or lower back.
- Your reflexes, strength, and sensation in your limbs.
Imaging tests will help Dr. Ball determine the extent of your injury. These tests may include:
- X-rays. X-ray images of the neck or lower back from different angles can detect fractures, dislocations, or arthritis.
- Computerized Tomography (CT). This particular type of x-ray produces cross-sectional images of bone and can show possible bone damage.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). This test uses radio waves and a magnetic field to produce detailed, 3D images to detect bone injuries and soft tissue injuries to the spinal cord, discs, or ligaments.
Treatment for Whiplash
If you are diagnosed with whiplash not complicated by disc herniation or instability, the goal for treatment is to control pain, restore your normal range of motion in your neck or lower back, and get you back to your normal activities.
Avoid heavy lifting and repetitive movements until your symptoms have completely subsided.
There are several things you can do to control pain. Dr. Ball will recommend that you rest for a few days and use either heat or cold to the neck or lower back for 15 minutes every 3 hours to help you feel better. Over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen help relieve mild to moderate whiplash pain, and prescription-strength pain medication help to relieve more severe pain. Short-term use of muscle relaxants help loosen tight muscles, soothe pain, and help you sleep. Injections, such as lidocaine, into painful muscle areas, also help decrease pain so that you can do physical therapy.
Following a prescribed exercise regimen, including stretching and movement exercise, is important for restoring your normal range of motion in your neck or lower back and getting you back to your normal activities.
You may be referred to Physical Therapy if you need help with strengthening and range of motion exercises for your neck or lower back.
Cervical Collars for Neck Strain
Dr. Ball may have you wear a cervical foam collar soon after your injury to help hold your neck and head still. Limiting your neck movement may help to decrease your pain. Dr. Ball will instruct you on how to use the collar and for how long.