What is Whiplash?

Whiplash 595 x 446

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a general term used to describe a wide variety of symptoms that may occur following a trauma to the head and neck, most commonly after a car accident but also from other traumas such as falls and sporting incidences

The term “whiplash” is not so much a diagnosis as a useful term that is understood by both the medical fraternity and the community at large.

Whiplash symptoms can vary greatly from person to person but can include any of the following:

  • Neck pain
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vertigo
  • Shoulder or shoulder blade pain
  • Pins and needles or numbness, particularly travelling down the arm
  • Upper limb weakness
  • A “heavy” head
  • Jaw pain

Why does Whiplash occur?

Unfortunately due to the fact that whiplash is so varied and does not relate to a specific anatomical site that has been damaged, the medical research available does not provide a clear explanation of why the symptoms develop.

As whiplash most frequently occurs after some trauma such as a car accident, sporting impact or a fall, it is assumed that many of the symptoms result from minor damage or irritation to the soft tissues of the neck (muscles and ligaments) and/or irritation to the joints of the spine, which can cause further irritation to the nearby nerves.

Scientific research has identified that factor such as crash related factors, the age or sex of the patient or x-ray changes (such as arthritis) are not reliable predictors of whiplash severity. However since almost all research data collection relates to post-accident information, there is a strong possibility that patients have a problem that they are completely unaware of prior to the accident and that the trauma potentiates symptoms….Much like a strenuous  run can “suddenly” cause the onset of heart attack, due to the increased load on the heart……a car accident or similar trauma may cause a weak neck to be stressed to a point that symptoms “suddenly” develop. The SWC has unique technology to assess neck strength as one of the underlying pre-accident problems and thus a potential solution to whiplash.

What should I do if I have had an accident that might result in whiplash?

Usually a severe accident will automatically result in an ambulance being in attendance and an initial assessment will be performed by a highly trained paramedic. It is rare for whiplash to have symptoms requiring hospitalisation in the acute stage and in most cases a review by your usual family doctor is sufficient and advised. Immediate loss of neck movement (i.e. inability to turn your head to the left and right beyond 45 degrees) even in the absence of neck pain should be assessed rapidly by a medical professional.

The vast majority of symptoms develop within the next 48 hours after an accident, much like post-exercise soreness, and can take up to 2 weeks to become obvious.

In most cases your doctor will recommend relative rest for a short period (less than 2 days), possibly prescribe anti-inflammatory and/or analgesic medication and likely refer you to a physiotherapist for ongoing management. A gentle return to normal activity as soon as possible is encouraged.

If you are intending on pursuing a third party insurance claim (in NSW this is available to any car accident victim except the driver deemed to be “at fault”) you MUST see a doctor prior to attending physiotherapy.

Do I need x-rays or other scans?

Most of the medical research currently available indicates that fractures of the bones in the neck are quite rare (significantly less than 10% of car accidents result in fractures) so x-rays are not usually required but are frequently performed as a precautionary measure (see “The Canadian C Spine Rule”). It is recommended that an xray be undertaken if the patient is over 65 years of age.

Whiplash also rarely results in soft tissue damage that can be detected using our current scanning techniques of CT or MRI scans. The technology available at the SWC may be one of the few objective examinations that can identify a diagnosable problem with your neck because it investigates neck function rather than neck structure.