What is Whiplash? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on April 4, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University

Man holding his neck in pain from whiplash after car accident

Whiplash injuries are most commonly caused by the quick and forceful impact during motor vehicle accidents. According to reports from the Australian Motor Accident Insurance Commission, approximately 106 in 100,000 Australians (>27,000) experience whiplash injuries after accidents.[1]

Many people experiencing whiplash may not even know they have an injury. In many cases, symptoms from a whiplash type of injury may take hours or even days after trauma to be noticed (e.g. motor vehicle accident, head knocks).

Read on to understand what you should know about whiplash; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

What is Whiplash?

A whiplash injury describes a neck condition which arises after a sudden and rapid backwards-to-forwards head movement. As the head jolts quickly, various structures, such as the spine, muscles and ligaments can become overstretched and injured. People experiencing whiplash commonly report neck pain and stiffness.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

The main symptom of whiplash is pain in the neck and shoulders. People may also experience neck stiffness, dizziness, headaches, ringing in the ears and pins and needles down the arms.

Common symptoms of whiplash

Symptoms may vary depending on the extent of whiplash injury. Pain and numbness extending to hands or legs are usually signs of nerve irritation or damage.

What causes whiplash?

Whiplash is a neck injury caused by a sudden and rapid back-and-forth motion of the neck (like the cracking of a whip). The leading causes of whiplash injuries are car crashes and contact sports such as rugby.

Common causes of whiplash

  • Motor vehicle crashes

  • Contact sports

  • Bicycle accidents

  • Fall from heights

  • Direct trauma to the head

Sports that increase the risk of whiplash

Contact and fighting sports can increase your risk of having a whiplash injury. Here is a list of the most common sports that can result in whiplash:

  • Football

  • Boxing

  • MMA

  • Soccer

  • Karate.

Many factors can cause whiplash. Most of these involve serious accidents and need medical attention. It is best to have yourself checked following motor vehicle crashes or head trauma as soon as possible to avoid further injury.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Whiplash is a severe injury that needs medical attention. Symptoms of whiplash can worsen following the initial onset and can be a sign of other severe injuries to the head and neck.

If you have recently suffered a severe head injury or are at all concerned regarding your symptoms, please see a doctor or go to the emergency department at your local hospital immediately.

A complete assessment of your neck is the key to diagnosing and treating your whiplash injury and screening for other injuries that can cause you problems.

There are several options available when it comes to diagnosing whiplash. One of the more common and most recommended by Australian GPs is an assessment from a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapists are medical experts in the field of rehabilitation. They are highly-qualified professionals that diagnose and treat injuries brought about by accidents such as whiplash.

A physiotherapy assessment is similar to visiting a GP. Your assessment will start with a consultation with your physiotherapist to ask you vital questions about your health, sports activities and lifestyle. This will provide a background of your condition and help formulate the correct diagnosis and treatment goals.

After establishing the background of your condition, your physiotherapist will perform a physical assessment and movement screens to determine the best possible cause of your pain and rule out other conditions.

The initial evaluation typically lasts for about 30 to 60 minutes. Your physiotherapist will then create a specific treatment plan based on your assessment to help you recover from injury.

From here, your physiotherapist will give you the details of your treatment program; this will include:

  • Number of treatment sessions

  • List of exercises you need to do at home

  • Strategies to manage the pain and to prevent worsening of the condition

  • Timeline of your total recovery

  • Further recommendations.

How is whiplash treated?

There are several options when it comes to treating the conditions that cause whiplash. One of the more common and the treatment option referred to by Australian GPs the most frequently is physiotherapy.

Whiplash is an injury that physiotherapists come across regularly, and the process of treating it is straightforward. Following an initial consultation, the physiotherapist will be in the best position to determine your treatment plan.

A combination of treatment protocols such as manual therapy, pain modalities, and specific movement exercises will be given to you by your physiotherapist.

Your treatment will focus on decreasing your pain, improving your range of motion, and facilitating safe movements of the neck.

Your physiotherapist will discuss each treatment and make sure that you better understand your condition after your initial evaluation.

Depending on the severity of your whiplash, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Manual Therapy: Hands-on treatment technique applied by your physio to achieve greater mobility of the spine.

  • Range of Motion Exercises: Techniques used to maintain and improve the range of motion of your neck and prevent stiffness due to inactivity.

  • Joint Mobilisation: Techniques used to promote natural movements of the spine, resulting in an increased range of motion and decreasing pain.

  • Heat Therapy: Use of any heating modalities can increase blood circulation and aid the body’s healing process.

  • Therapeutic Exercises: Given to you to correct impairments and improve the function of your muscles and tendons. This is one of the most vital parts of rehabilitation.

  • Stretching Exercises: Techniques used to lengthen your muscles, decrease tension and decrease pain.

  • Postural Exercises: Exercises designed to improve your posture and have efficient muscle and joint mechanics to help reduce tension in the neck area.

  • Soft Tissue Massage: Hands-on treatment to relieve muscle tension and improve blood circulation in the back and neck area.

  • Traction: Use of traction will help relieve muscle tension and decrease nerve root irritation in the neck.

Physiotherapy treatment can last for about 30 to 60 minutes. Most patients can feel the difference in just a single session.

Next step: Creating a treatment plan made for you

Your physiotherapist will create a detailed treatment plan that will guide you step-by-step based on your treatment goals to maximise your recovery.

Self-care for whiplash

If you are experiencing symptoms of whiplash, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  • Rest

Resting for a couple of days can help your body recover and reduce the stress on the neck region.

  • Use Hot Compress / Ice compress.

Use a cold compress to manage the swelling and decrease your pain. Apply it for 10 to 15 minutes. Stiffness of the neck can be lessened if you use a hot compress. Apply a hot compress for at least 15 to 20 minutes to improve blood circulation in the area and relax your muscles.

  • Gentle Stretching

Gentle stretching of your neck can reduce muscle stiffness and improve your range of motion.

  • Wear a Neck Brace

Wearing your prescribed neck brace can help prevent unnecessary movement of the neck that may complicate the condition. This is only a short-term measure if pain is quite severe.

Things to avoid:

  • Avoid High Impact Activities

Avoid strenuous activities for a couple of days and note if your symptoms are progressing. Resting is an integral part of your recovery.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

Whiplash injury is usually caused by a severe accident or direct trauma to the neck and head regions, requiring medical attention.

It is also essential to have your check as soon as possible to screen for other severe injuries such as brain trauma or fractures.

An X-Ray can be done to check for fractures of the spine in the thoracic and cervical regions. MRI or CT scans may be ordered to check for brain injuries following an accident.

A combination of medications for pain relief, gentle exercise and physiotherapy is the key in treating whiplash injury.

Your GP may refer you for physiotherapy for rehabilitation and treatment.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for whiplash?

Ultimately, recovery time is dependent on your proactiveness to seek professional treatment and the severity of your whiplash.

Full recovery from whiplash can be achieved within 8-12 weeks. However, symptoms can become chronic if left untreated.

Physiotherapy can accelerate your recovery and help you manage the symptoms. The key to your rescue is patience and consistency in your treatment program.

Physiotherapy improves the overall outcome and promotes a faster recovery for patients who have a whiplash injury.

Important factors in recovery include:

  • Sticking to your rehabilitation program and regularly exercising

  • Resuming your sports activity gradually

  • Paying attention to pain, and resting as necessary.

Can whiplash be prevented?

Guaranteeing prevention can be impossible; however, you can decrease the risk of worse outcomes from whiplash by implementing these techniques. These preventative strategies listed are actually also quite useful tips for rehabilitation and recovery if you have already injured yourself.

  • Strengthening your neck muscles: Exercising your neck muscles can make your neck strong and resilient to injuries.

  • Stretch your neck muscles: Keep your neck muscles in an optimal range of motion by stretching them regularly. Stretching can make your tendons flexible and more resilient to overstretch and tears.

Outlook and the main takeaways

Since a lot of cases of whiplash are accident-related, everyone is vulnerable to this injury. It is essential to know what you can do to help your recovery and prevent further damage to your neck region.

Book an appointment today and have your neck assessed and start on your road to recovery through physiotherapy immediately.

Anatomy of the neck

Your neck is a mobile region of your body that allows a variety of head movements. Critical structures of your neck region can be prone to injury depending on the force and direction of impact following whiplash.

  • Cervical Spine: Axis, Atlas and C3-C7 Vertebrae

  • Joints: Atlanto-axial joint, Atlanto-occipital joint and Zygapophyseal joints

  • Intervertebral disc

  • Muscles

  • Ligaments

  • Nerve roots and spinal cord

  • Vertebral arteries

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on April 4, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on April 4, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on April 4, 2022
BookPhysio.com has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
  • 1.

    Nikles J, Yelland M, Bayram C, Miller G, Sterling M. Management of Whiplash Associated Disorders in Australian general practice. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2017 [cited 2022 Mar 4];18(1):551

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