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What is Whiplash?

Whiplash can occur when a person is in a car accident.
A woman with whiplash.
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  • Written By: J. Beam
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 05 April 2014
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Whiplash is a term that describes injury to muscles, ligaments, and soft tissue in the neck. Contrary to popular belief, whiplash is not a medical term, but it is still the most commonly used term for such a neck injury. Typically, whiplash occurs as a result of a rear end vehicle collision or sports injury, but other accidents can account for similar injury to the neck.

Whiplash, also known as neck sprain or cervical sprain, is a direct result of the neck being forced out of its normal range of motion. Since it is an injury primarily involving muscles and ligaments, it can take up to 12 hours or more before the effects of a whiplash injury are evident. Symptoms of whiplash include stiff neck and neck pain, limited mobility, back and shoulder pain and headache. The signs and symptoms of whiplash should not be confused with symptoms of a head injury in the event of an accident. Medical attention should not be postponed if any trauma to the head has occurred.

Diagnosis of whiplash is usually not a difficult one and typically involves only a physical examination. Most muscle and tissue sprains or injuries will not appear on x-rays and only severe injuries are typically sent for imaging.

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Treatment for whiplash may consist of pain medication and muscle relaxants along with range of motion exercises. In years past, it was believed that a whiplash injury should be immobilized with the help of a collar, but in recent years, doctors have begun to encourage mobility for faster healing. Sometimes a soft collar brace is provided for the first week or two, but this is now used in conjunction with exercise. Heat therapy may also help with neck pain and tension. In some cases, physical therapy and traction are used if an individual is experiencing severe pain with mobility or has suffered back injury along with neck injury.

Most people recover fully from a whiplash injury within two to three months. Some individuals may experience residual neck pain for a longer period of time. Though whiplash is typically a minor injury, it is important to see a doctor any time the head or neck has experienced trauma.

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