Whiplash in the neck

It's a pain in the neck.

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is the common term for the acceleration/deceleration forces that occur to the neck during a rear end or side impact collision. During the impact, bones and soft tissues such as neck muscles, ligaments, discs, tendons and nerves can be injured and cause pain. Whiplash associated disorder refers to the group of symptoms which occur following a whiplash injury.

What happens after a soft injury?

After an injury to any tissue in the body there is an inflammatory process that occurs. Inflammation brings cells and chemicals to the injured area to start the healing process. The inflammation can take several days to develop. Inflammation is meant to hurt and the inflammatory chemicals trigger messages to be sent to the brain to determine what response is needed.

The injured tissues aren’t the only things that send messages to the brain regarding the injury. The circumstances surrounding the accident such as if other people were injured and if you had to get out of the way to escape further danger, all feed information to the brain that then interprets the best response needed to deal with the immediate threat.

A response to the accident is often noted in many systems of the body including your heart and circulation, digestive system, muscle and central nervous system. These responses are normal in the initial period after the accident and should settle down.

After a six to eight week period the injured muscles and ligaments should have nearly healed as well as they can in healthy people. Pain may still be felt though, as efficient movement patterns may have to be re-learnt and strength needs to build up in the muscles again.

Common Symptoms

Common symptoms include neck pain, back pain, dizziness, headaches, stiffness and tenderness, trouble with concentration.

What to Expect?

  • Symptoms may appear immediately or take several days to develop due to the inflammatory process.
  • Recovery from a whiplash injury can occur quickly or there will be a gradual improvement over many months. 44% of sufferers have recovered after 1 month and 65% have recovered after 6 months.
  • Resuming normal activity has been shown to hasten recovery compared to prolonged periods of reduced activity.
  • The majority of people who sustain a whiplash injury can make a full recovery with no limitations.

Helping Yourself

  • Do as many of your normal activities as possible
  • Keep active. If your neck pain increases, it does not mean that you have re-injured your neck. It is usually an acute muscle spasm, which is dealt with best by gentle stretching and moving.
  • Change postures regularly to prevent over using the injured soft tissues.
  • Gradually increase your activity and exercises. Start at a level you know you can do without increasing your pain and try a little more next time. By gradually increasing your activity you can successfully resume participation in your work, sports and hobbies.
  • Hot or Cold Pack: A cold pack can be used in the first 48 hours to reduce inflammation. Apply for a maximum of 20 minutes every 2 hours. A hot pack can be used after this time. Remember to wrap the cold pack in a damp cloth and not to overheat the hot pack, to avoid burns.
  • Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and pain medications as recommended by your GP may be of benefit.
  • Seek professional help if you are having fears about travelling on the road or problems coping emotionally with the accident. You can discuss this with you GP or physio. Addressing these fears early can help your recovery.

Take care with:

  • Lifting heavy loads
  • Working or lifting above shoulder height
  • Sustained positions of your neck such as reading, computer work and crafts if these are painful.

Avoid sleeping on your stomach, which can put too much stain on the injured ligaments and muscles of your neck.

Pain and function should continue to improve over the first 6 – 12 weeks. If you notice pain is worsening, spreading over more areas or you are becoming more fearful of moving because it hurts, let your physiotherapist or doctor know. Addressing these issues early is important to help maximise your function and assist as quick a recovery as possible.

At Adelaide Crows Sports Medicine Clinic, we can help you to get moving again, reduce pain levels and teach you how to slowly resume your normal activities.

For further advice or treatment please phone: 8347 2043