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What exactly is Whiplash and how do you know if you should see a doctor?

Whiplash can literally be a pain in the neck, but this common injury is not an everyday condition. There are many cases of whiplash every year, usually as a result of a rear-end car accident, but also from sports accidents or other forms of trauma. Whiplash gets its catchy name from the whip-like, rapid back-and-forth neck movement that causes the injury, which can also have significant and lasting effects on the spine.

Bones in the spine, ligaments, muscles, nerves, vertebral discs and other neck tissues can all be injured by whiplash when a person's head is shaken quickly and vigorously. Ruling out fractures or other tissue damage that causes symptoms is serious business.

Whiplash Symptoms
Some people who suffer from whiplash do not experience immediate symptoms. But usually the symptoms develop within 24 hours and can be:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headache
  • Worse neck pain when the neck is moved
  • Less freedom of movement in the neck
  • Pain or tenderness of the shoulders, upper back or arms
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Whiplash symptoms are no joke. In all but the smallest cases of whiplash, symptoms can make it difficult to perform normal activities without pain. That is why a correct diagnosis, often with an MRI, and prompt treatment are crucial.

When should you see a doctor?
It is necessary to see a doctor for whiplash in all cases, except minor cases. Often the car accident, sports injury or other traumatic injury that caused your whiplash is followed by a trip to the hospital or a doctor's office.

During the exam, be sure to clearly explain how severe your neck pain is, what movements make it worse, and any neck pain you've experienced in the past. Providing a detailed explanation of your symptoms and history will help guide your doctor through imaging tests and other ways to assess your condition.

The treatment of whiplash often extends beyond the soft foam neck collars that were once standard therapy, as they are now used less frequently or for shorter periods of time. That's because recent research suggests that holding the neck still for a long time delays healing.
Other whiplash treatments may include applying ice or heat; taking over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers or muscle relaxants; or receiving injections of a numbing drug into painful tissues. Physiotherapy is also often an important part of whiplash recovery.

The goal is to restore range of motion in your neck and upper body so you can move again without pain. Whiplash can be much more than a pain in the neck when it comes to recovery, but thankfully almost everyone who experiences this injury will make a full recovery.