What Are the Symptoms of Severe Whiplash?

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  • Originally Written By: Ellen Dean
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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Symptoms of severe whiplash can include a range of different things, but the most common tend to be muscular pain, intense and long-lasting headaches, and nerve spasms in the neck, back, and arms. In rare cases people can also experience problems with memory and mental acuity. Most all of the symptoms are treatable, but successful treatment usually depends on a prompt diagnosis. Various therapeutic and medicinal therapies may be involved, too. Severe cases can sometimes be perplexing since symptoms don’t usually appear right away. It can be days or even weeks after an accident or trauma before a person starts to feel pain or pressure. Getting evaluated after any sort of crash or accident is usually a good idea, and tracking symptoms and changes over time is important, too.

Understanding Whiplash Generally

Whiplash normally happens when the head and neck suddenly jolt forward and then immediately backward with no time for the muscles to react. The injury is perhaps most common in rear-end vehicle collisions. Occupants of the car that is hit are most at risk, particularly if they aren’t moving. The slamming impact of being hit from behind frequently snaps passengers’ heads forward while seatbelts restrain the torso and body. Falling, diving, or any intense blow to the head can also cause whiplash.


Gradations of Injury

Most cases aren’t serious. Common symptoms of mild to moderate whiplash can occur immediately following an accident or gradually develop over a series of days. People who have suffered severe whiplash, however, more often feel nothing the first day, but wake up the next morning or even several days later with stiffness and soreness in the neck area. Symptoms often progress or worsen over time, and frequently radiate down the spine and through the arms.

Severe whiplash is usually not life threatening, though it can be scary. The symptoms and recovery times tend to vary greatly from patient to patient, which is one reason why prompt and consistent medical care is an important part of the healing process.

Muscular Pain and Headaches

Extreme pain and stiffness is one of the first things most people with this condition notice. The pain is often the worst in the morning or after extensive periods of rest; tension often builds in resting muscles, and inactivity, such as while sleeping, can temporarily exacerbate the problem.

Dull headaches are also common. In many victims head pain is more or less constant; over the counter painkillers can bring temporary relief, but many find that once the medication wears off the headache is back. Most of the time the pain is caused by muscular contractions in the back of the neck, but it can also be a sign of brain bruising or, in very serious accidents, concussion. When the neck snaps backwards and forwards, the brain rattles in the skull, and can be damaged, even if just peripherally.

Nerve Spasms

Hyperextension in the neck, which is basically extension of the muscles beyond the normal range of motion, can cause ligaments or neck muscles to become overstretched and even torn. Serious whiplash can sometimes cause discs, spinal joints, and nerve roots to strain or crack. Soft tissue damage and inflammation can result in compression of nerve roots and cause shooting pains.

Cognitive Symptoms

Other symptoms could include problems with memory, dizziness, and impaired hearing. Problems with vision, particularly blurred vision and floaters, can happen, too, though usually only in conjunction with a related brain or nerve injury. Depression and difficulty sleeping are commonly reported as well.

Treatment Options

Most whiplash cases heal completely, though the time required can vary anywhere from two to 12 weeks or more. Serious whiplash might take several months for full recovery, though some patients might develop long-term problems that can’t be completely cured. In some cases, chronic problems can last for life.

In severe cases, physical therapy or spinal manipulation might be some of the best ways to facilitate healing. Anti-inflammatory medicines as well as muscle relaxants and pain medications are often administered to relieve discomfort and inflammation. Soft neck braces can help relax the muscles to relieve pain, but prolonged use of a brace can in many instances delay recovery. For severe whiplash sufferers, if a fracture or dislocation has happened, a molded collar might be necessary to stabilize the neck.


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