Updated: Feb 10
Whiplash is one of those terms that people use to describe almost any neck injury. Whether they were on a rollercoaster or have been in a car accident, whiplash is the all-encompassing term that labels these injuries even though the treatments for varying grades of whiplash are widely different. Depending on the person and the degree of injury, recovery may take days or it may take years if treated poorly. Hold on tight 'cause we've got a lot of info to cover!
What is whiplash?
Whiplash is a specific type of neck injury that involves first an excessive bend in the neck and then a subsequent bend in the opposite direction similar to a whip’s motion. When in a car accident or taking a hard hit in football, a sudden jerk of the body can cause the neck to jolt and result in whiplash. Now that we understand that whiplash is a term used for a mechanism of injury and not the damage to the neck structures itself, we can talk about the specific neck structures that can be injured and what to expect for each type of whiplash. We’ll look at any damage to the muscles, ligaments and tendons, as well as the nerves.
Ligaments and Tendons
*Ligaments are connective tissue that connect bone to bone, and tendons are connective tissue that connect muscle to bone.
Upper cervical ligament injury:
Soreness and pain
Decreased range of motion
Numbness and tingling anywhere from the neck to the fingers
Numbness and tingling in the face
Muscle spasm…. this again? Yep!
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain or instability
Your head may feel very heavy or that you may need to prop it up with your hands. This indicates a weakness of your neck stabilizing muscles such as the deep neck flexors and multifidi. These muscles can also be injured during whiplash and result in upper cervical instability, even with all ligaments intact.
Peripheral nerve damage:
Though it may seem like a bleak outcome for whiplash, it is a well-understood disorder for physical therapists. It is more often than not that a person who experiences whiplash has more than one of the conditions stated above, and physical therapists are trained to treat the neck holistically. Here are some treatment techniques that physical therapists use. This is not a comprehensive list, but here we will address some of the common ones.
Soft tissue mobilization:
Of course, these are not the only treatments that can be performed for those with a whiplash injury. These are only some basic techniques. It is important to look at the person as a whole and not just treat them as if they were just a neck. Every part of the body is connected and whiplash is no isolated event. Often, the brain, upper back, lower back, and even legs can be affected by what happens during whiplash. Proper treatment for whiplash will address the entire body not as individual parts but as a whole, interconnected system.
So, if you’re sitting there reading this article with your forward head and neck pain, don’t wait any longer. See your local physical therapist or physician today to start your journey toward recovery.