What is Cervical Whiplash?

J.M. Willhite
J.M. Willhite
A woman with neck pain from cervical whiplash.
A woman with neck pain from cervical whiplash.

Cervical whiplash is a form of neck trauma that results from an abrupt unnatural movement of the neck. The severity of cervical whiplash sustained is dependent on the degree of hyperextension, or how far the neck is forced beyond its natural range of motion. Treatment is determined by the severity of injury and may range from the use of an over-the-counter (OTC) analgesic to physical therapy to manage symptoms.

A woman wearing a cervical collar for whiplash.
A woman wearing a cervical collar for whiplash.

A diagnosis of cervical whiplash is generally made when neck pain persists with minimal relief. Following a palpatory examination of the neck, diagnostic tests may be performed to determine the source of the discomfort and extent of injury. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and X-ray are commonly used to evaluate the condition of the cervical spine and check for signs of dislocation, possible nerve damage, and inflammation. Further testing may be performed at the physician's discretion.

Whiplash is most often caused by a car accident or other similar incident.
Whiplash is most often caused by a car accident or other similar incident.

Forceful shaking or shoving can easily cause neck trauma and whiplash, especially when the individual is unsuspecting. Generally, cervical whiplash is associated with accidents where the vehicle one is traveling in is struck from behind. The abrupt movement associated with whiplash can hyperextend the soft tissues in the neck, causing stretching and tearing of the tendons and muscles. Cervical discs may also dislodge during the initial trauma causing immediate swelling and inflammation. Mild injuries can take several hours or days to manifest, whereas, more severe injuries may present within a matter of minutes.

When cervical whiplash symptoms initially appear, individuals frequently experience an intense headache accompanied by a stiff neck. Pronounced swelling can cause tenderness that makes it all the more difficult for one to move his or her head. If the whiplash is severe, it is not uncommon for some people to experience mood changes, impaired cognition, and insomnia.

Extensive injury to the cervical spine can result in the development of several potentially chronic conditions. Displacement of cervical discs can contribute to herniation, or a slipped disc. Some individuals with cervical whiplash may experience a persistent limited range of motion in their neck. Long-term discomfort is considered a complication of neck trauma that may last months or years depending on the severity of the initial injury.

Self-care measures for cervical whiplash generally involve the application of a cold pack or compress combined with the use of acetaminophen or other OTC analgesic medication. Some individuals may find that keeping their neck immobilized, such as with a cervical collar, a few hours each day over the short term helps alleviate discomfort. Persistent pain may necessitate the administration of prescription drugs to ease muscle constriction, reduce inflammation, and alleviate discomfort. Therapeutic neck massage and exercises may be recommended by one's physician to promote flexibility. Most individuals recover from their injury within a couple of months; those with severe cervical whiplash or complications may take up to a year to heal.

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    • A woman with neck pain from cervical whiplash.
      A woman with neck pain from cervical whiplash.
    • A woman wearing a cervical collar for whiplash.
      A woman wearing a cervical collar for whiplash.
    • Whiplash is most often caused by a car accident or other similar incident.
      Whiplash is most often caused by a car accident or other similar incident.