Whiplash is the common term for a neck injury involving rapid flexion and extension of the neck. These injuries frequently occur, as your sister’s did, during rear-end automobile accidents when the head is suddenly jolted back and then snaps forward in response to the impact and mechanical forces of the crash. The pain stems from the effect of this sudden and violent motion on neck muscles and ligaments as they are extended beyond their normal range of motion. Sometimes, the injury affects intervertebral joints, discs, and ligaments, cervical muscles, and nerve roots. Whiplash can also occur as a result of physical abuse and is one of the injuries seen in "shaken baby syndrome." The same type of injury can be sustained while playing football or other contact sports.
Symptoms of whiplash usually develop within 24 hours of the trauma and can include neck pain and stiffness, headache (usually at the base of the skull), dizziness, blurred vision and fatigue. More severe symptoms can include problems with memory and concentration, ringing in the ears, sleep problems, irritability and shoulder or back pain. If the pain spreads to your shoulders or arms, if you develop numbness tingling or weakness in your arms, or if you have difficulty moving your head, be sure to see your doctor.
Most people recover from whiplash injuries within a few days; in some cases, symptoms persist for weeks or, rarely, months. Often, the only treatment needed is over-the-counter pain medication, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Initially, you can use ice on the injured area to reduce inflammation. Later, apply wet heat to help relax your muscles before doing range-of-motion exercises. More severe injuries may require treatment with antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and, perhaps, a cervical collar to be worn for up to three hours day for a few days after the injury. (Wearing these collars for too long is not recommended since they can ultimately weaken neck muscles and impair recovery.) Other treatments may include a course of range-of-motion exercises and physical therapy.
My main recommendations for whiplash treatment are osteopathic manipulative therapy and therapeutic yoga. To find an osteopathic physician in your area qualified to treat you with manipulative therapy, visit the American Osteopathic Association website, or go here to find a therapeutic yoga teacher.
Incidentally, you can visit this website to learn about clinical trials on whiplash that are underway or are recruiting volunteers.
Andrew Weil, M.D.