What are Whiplash Associated Disorders?

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  • Written By: A. Roe
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
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Whiplash is a non-medical term for a medical condition that results when the neck and head are jolted or very suddenly forced into an unusual position, such as when a car is hit in the course of an auto accident. It refers specifically to neck pain resulting from damage to the muscles and tendons of the neck. Whiplash associated disorder (WAD) is a term referring to the medical problems that result from a whiplash injury. Some of these symptoms include pain, dizziness, tingling in the arms and neck, and depression.

The most common cause of whiplash is when a car is hit from behind by another car, though whiplash can also occur as the result of a sporting activity or simply falling accidentally. Pre-existing neck or back injuries leave a person more vulnerable to the condition. While whiplash is a prerequisite of whiplash associated disorders, most people who have whiplash recover without suffering serious or long-term issues such as those linked to whiplash associated disorders.

The most common problems of whiplash associated disorders are muscle pain in the neck, head and shoulders; chronic headaches; tingling of the shoulders, arms and neck; and numbness of the neck, shoulders or arms. These symptoms may or may not be present but, if they are, will subside on their own after several weeks. Patients with whiplash associated disorder will continue to experience these symptoms, and the symptoms won’t seem to get better with time.


Diagnosing whiplash associated disorder typically begins with a physical examination. The doctor will check for mobility of the head and neck, along with swelling or bruising; he may have X-rays done to rule out broken or fractured bones. Other tests may include a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan to check for muscle or tendon damage. In addition to a medical history, the doctor will often review the patient's mood, appearance and general state of health. That review is beneficial in diagnosing and treating WAD-related depression.

Once a patient is diagnosed with whiplash associated disorders, the level of WAD is graded according to severity. Those with Grade I WAD have less severe symptoms and fewer symptoms than those with a higher-grade WAD. The treatment for complications of WAD, regardless of the level, is similar. They include encouraging the patient to resume regular activities as quickly as possible, take over-the-counter pain medication, find and use some form of stress relief and, in some cases, use physical therapy to strengthen and rehabilitate muscles.

Some also find acupuncture beneficial in coping with pain and the stress related to being in pain for a prolonged period of time. Neck collars are typically not recommended for lower-grade WAD. When a collar is recommended, it shouldn't be worn for more than three days.



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