Whiplash: Prevention and recovery

Sore neck

By Mitchell Saklas

You’re being a pain in my neck! How many times have you heard or said this line? Oftentimes, we associate neck pain with people or situations that are troublesome and a nuisance. However, neck pain, in literal terms, can also be problematic, bothersome and quite uncomfortable from the time you wake up until the time you fall asleep.

Are you currently experiencing or have you ever experienced neck pain in the past? You are not alone! 70 per cent of individuals have had neck pain at least once in their lifetime1. A cause of neck pain, most common among drivers, is generally identified as “whiplash.” If you’ve ever been in a car accident or been pushed forcefully from the front or back, it has most likely forced your head too far back and/or too far forward, causing neck pain.

Neck pain can have several causes, all of which impact the structures in your neck in different ways. Car accidents are commonly identified as the major cause of whiplash due to the great force associated with the crash.2

The injury

If your car was unexpectedly hit from the back, the force generated in the impact would have pushed your car forward while your head was pulled backwards until it hit the headrest. At this point, your head would rebound off the headrest like a ball bouncing back up from the ground, and would be forcefully brought forward. Headrests must be properly positioned before driving to minimize the amount that your head can be brought backwards thus preventing the amount of injury inflicted on your neck.

The most common source of pain can be found in the back of the neck. In addition, people often complain of pain in their head, shoulder, arms, upper and lower back. A headache is frequently reported, as well as dizziness, loss of balance, problems with vision, weakness in arms and legs, loss of memory and trouble concentrating1. Some of these symptoms may be in part due to the blow to your head that may have also caused a concussion.

Surprisingly, all of what was just described can take up to 10 to15 hours to appear!

Pain is a signal to let you know something in your body is not right. Several structures in the necks of car accident victims have shown to have damaged vertebrae, intervertebral discs, nerve injuries, ligament and muscle tears due to the excessive stretching and compression that occurs.1 Keep in mind, if you’ve been in a car accident you may also be experiencing emotional repercussions from the event which can heighten your levels of pain.

Prevention and recovery

The bulk of your recovery occurs within the first 2 to 3 months following the injury, so this time is crucial! Unless you’ve had a neck fracture, it has been found that returning to normal activities as soon as possible is the best treatment for whiplash and contrary to popular belief, rest and wearing neck collars is not recommended.3

If you have endured a whiplash it is also important that you consult with a health care professional to understand what has just happened, what to expect and what the best steps are for recovery. This may include medications or electrical modalities for the pain and/or inflammation, exercises, stretches and massage therapy that may promote faster healing. A physiotherapist, in this case, could help you manage your pain through manual therapy and exercise prescription to reduce pain, strengthen those neck muscles that may have been damaged in the accident to prevent any further complications and to encourage a faster recovery.4 In addition, physiotherapy can help identify potential issues with your posture following the injury, as the structures affected can influence the way you stand, sit or lie down which can lead to additional problems down the road.

Attention! To minimize the severity of whiplash, next time you get into your car, see how far back your head must go before it touches the headrest. This is how far back your head would be pushed if you were to be in an accident. Adjust your headrest to ensure that it is at the same level as your head in addition to making sure that it is as close to the back of your head as possible. You may need to adjust the back of your seat to achieve the best position.5

  1. Jull, G., Sterling, M., Falla, D., Treleaven, J. & O’Leary, S. (2008). Whiplash, headache and neck pain: Research based directions for Physical Therapies (1st edition). Churchill Livingstone.
  2. Sterling, M. & Kenardy, J. (2011). Whiplash: evidence base for clinical practice (1st edition). Elsevier Canada.
  3. Gross, A. et al. (2012). Patient education for neck pain. The Cochrane database for systematic reviews.
  4. Sterling, M. (2014). Physiotherapy management of whiplash-associated disorders (WAD). Journal of Physiotherapy. 60:5-12.
  5. Properly Adjusted Headrests Prevent Injuries. Canada Safety Council. Retrieved from: http://www.icbc.com/road-safety/safer-drivers/Pages/Adjusting-head-restraints.aspx

About the author

Mitchell Saklas, the authorBeing a visionary, role model and leader is everything a physiotherapist needs to be. I have made a promise to myself to devote all that I can to those who need me and to a field in line with my values for a healthy self. With time and effort, I believe I can be a healthcare professional that sets new standards and expectations for the profession.

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” -Batman