Whiplash is an increasingly common injury that can cause the sufferer high levels of discomfort for weeks, or sometimes months after the initial injury may have occurred.

Most people are aware of the most common cause of whiplash, a road accident in which another vehicle hits your car while still or stationary. In fact one in five people involved in such a car accident will experience whiplash. Most people recover in a matter of a few weeks, but for a few it can be the start of years of trouble.

But whiplash can be a complex condition, and can be caused by a number of other incidences than a car shunt.

Read on to find out what you need to know about the condition, how it is caused, and what to do if you think you have it.

How is whiplashed caused?

In the most common incidence, whiplash is caused by a sudden and unexpected jolt forward, most often in a car accident. The sudden movement caused by a rear collision causes your car to spring forward. Subsequently your body follows, but often after a very brief delay, causing the head to tilt downwards slightly, towards the steering wheel. This in turn causes the neck to extend forwards. As a result, the soft tissue (ligaments, tendons and muscles) at the back of the neck can stretch and tear. Nerves in the area may also be damaged by the sudden movement.

Any damage to the abovementioned tissue is categorised as Whiplash.

Note: Whiplash is also often referred to as 'cervical sprain' or 'hyperextension injury'

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Whiplash symptoms will usually occur within hours of the incident occurring, but they can vary greatly. They can include:

  • Pain and stiffness in the neck
  • Headache
  • Numbness in the arms and hands
  • Back pain
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory loss
  • Poor mental performance
  • Ringing in the ears or tinnitus
  • Blurred vision

How is Whiplash diagnosed? What do I do if I think I have it?

If you think you may be suffering from Whiplash, your doctor is your first port of call. He/she will normally be able to diagnose the condition by simply listening to your detailed description of the causing incident.

Your doctor will also perform a simple examination of your neck and arms to confirm your symptoms are indeed Whiplash. This way he/she will be able to quickly diagnose signs of damage to the spinal nerves, vertebrae or spinal cord. At this stage further treatment may be recommended.

What will the further treatment involve?

The usual treatment for patients suffering from Whiplash symptoms is to encase the neck in a supportive collar, thereby preventing movement.

Additionally, NHS guidelines for the treatment of all soft tissues apply, and are listed below:

  • Apply an ice pack as soon as possible in order to reduce swelling
  • Take pain relief medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen. It is essential the medication you take is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory - check with your doctor if you are unsure
  • Rest the area as much as you can, before gradually increasing the movement gradually to build up the muscles again. But be sure not to overdo it, again consult your doctor for precise advice.
  • Massage treatment is often effective. As is traction, ultrasound and physical treatment. Consult a chiropractor or physiotherapist for more advice

If I am suffering from Whiplash, are there any other effective treatments besides medicines?

Yes absolutely. If you are suffering from a Whiplash injury there are a number of measures your can take and exercises you can do to aid your recovery. These include:

  • A good pillow - not to be underestimated, your pillow selection will greatly aid your recovery and prevent further discomfort after your injury. Try to select a firm supporting pillow, and try not to use more than one when sleeping.
  • Sit up straight at work - Maintaining a good posture is essential for your back at all time, but when suffering from Whiplash it becomes even more important. If you work in an office ensure that your sitting position is straight and avoid slouching. Also, try not to sit with your head flexed forward with a stooped back.
  • Yoga, pilates and the Alexander technique - All of these forms of stretching exercises have been proven to improve neck posture. However, as yet, their value in treating long-term back pain is still unproven.
  • Physiotherapy - Treatments offered by physiotherapists such as traction, heat, and manipulation has proven to be effective in the treatment of troublesome Whiplash cases. Your physiotherapist will also give you a number of effective exercises to perform at home that will aid your recovery.

Will I make a full recovery? What is the prognosis after a whiplash neck injury?

The vast majority of whiplash victims go on to make a full and speedy recovery. This does of course depend on the severity of the sprain, but few suffer discomfort beyond a few weeks. However, a small minority may go on to suffer more serious injuries, and you should be aware of what to look out for. Consult your doctor if:

  • the pain worsens
  • the pain persists beyond four weeks
  • numbness develops
  • weakness or persistent pins and needles develop in your arms or hands (this can be a symptom of irritation or pressure on a nerve emerging from the spinal cord)

However, do not worry too much. As mentioned earlier, most whiplash victims do make a full recovery.

This is not to say that the discomfort should be taken lightly, and if you believe you have suffered a whiplash injury as a result of an accident that wasn't your fault, you could be entitled to compensation.

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