What Is Whiplash? – Injury Guide


A whiplash injury occurs when a sudden impact causes your neck to rapidly move back and snap forward with great force. Rear-end auto collisions cause this type of neck injury most often. Other incidents that can injure your neck include falls, physical assaults, and sports accidents.

Table of Contents

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a minor to severe neck injury caused by sudden, forceful back-and-forth movements of the cervical spine. The traumatic movements can damage any or all of the tissues in the neck, including the muscles, tendons, discs, and nerves. The neck injury results in pain and other symptoms that can impact your quality of life and limit your daily activities.

When whiplash occurs, damage to the cervical spine leaves you dealing with pain, limited range of motion, and other symptoms. The effects usually last for weeks to months while your body heals, although permanent disabilities can arise. As a result of the neck injuries, you may find it difficult to engage in your regular activities and enjoy your full quality of life.

Whiplash Medical Term

What’s whiplash, really? Whiplash on its own is not a true medical term, although it’s used most often to describe this neck injury. The official whiplash definition points to the term whiplash-associated disorder (WAD) [3]. Under this whiplash meaning, you’ll find all the symptoms resulting from the damage to the cervical spine.

The symptoms result from the rapid acceleration, and then deceleration of your body. Your neck snaps back and forth in response, resulting in up to 500 pounds of force on the sensitive tissues [4]. If your head is turned at the point of impact, your injuries are likely to be much more severe.

Although most cases of whiplash are minor to moderate, it’s possible for serious injuries to the spinal cord to occur, potentially resulting in quadriplegia. Spinal cord injuries make you up to five times more likely to die prematurely, especially if you’re not able to get quality medical care [5].

Whiplash Injury Statistics

In the United States, more than three million people experience whiplash injuries each year [1]. In fact, at least three people suffer this neck injury every minute of the day all through the year. Chronic disability often occurs as a result of damage to the neck tissues, resulting in serious economic burdens. Across the nation, the cost of emergency medical care, lost wages, and other expenses add up to over $43 billion.

Out of all car accident injuries, whiplash occurs most often. In fact, it affects over 80% of people involved in collisions [2]. The remainder of the cases happen during contact sports matches and practices, physical assaults, slip and fall accidents, and other traumatic events.

What Causes Whiplash?

Whiplash results from any sudden impact or other blow that causes the neck to whip back and forward forcefully. Speed does not directly correlate with the severity of the injuries. But prior neck injuries can increase the risk of experiencing even more significant symptoms the next time around [6].

Situations that can result in this type of injury include:

Whiplash Car Accidents

The vast majority of whiplash injuries happen during car accidents. Rear-end collisions, in particular, result in 85% of the neck injuries suffered in motor vehicle accidents [7]. Even ultra-low-speed impacts pose a risk of neck injuries, especially in infants and small children. Their delicate neck muscles simply cannot withstand the forces as vehicles collide with each other or other obstructions.

Whiplash Sports Injuries

Although not as common as with motor vehicle collisions, whiplash can happen while playing sports. High-contact sports pose the greatest risk, including football, boxing, and hockey. As physical contact between players occurs, the sudden jolt can put excess strain on the neck tissues, resulting in damage. Teenagers face the highest risk of suffering sports injuries, but the damage can happen at any age [8].

Physical Assaults Resulting in Whiplash

Physical assaults can cause whiplash symptoms to occur across all ages. Shaken baby syndrome is a common cause of whiplash in babies and young children. In older kids, teens, and adults, punches, kicks, and other blows to the head result in neck injuries more often than not. Repeated blows increase the risk of severe damage to the tissues in the neck.  

Whenever a sudden blow results in the neck whipping back and forth, there’s a marked risk of suffering minor to severe symptoms. There’s no way to tell the severity of the damage at first glance, which is why it’s vital to get medical care immediately after suffering a blow. 

Whiplash Symptoms

What does whiplash feel like? It’s more than a simple pain in the neck. Your symptoms of whiplash might start with a loss of movement in your neck coupled with a severe headache. Neck pain and stiffness are likely as well, especially as the days go on. You can also expect the back of your neck, collarbones, and surrounding areas to feel tender to the touch.  

As whiplash injury symptoms further develop, you may also experience other signs of whiplash, such as:

  • Pain in your limbs
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Lower back pain

As you deal with these symptoms, you may find that it’s difficult to get comfortable enough to sleep through the night. The pain will likely wake you up several times a night, leaving you feeling fatigued throughout the day. Between the sleep difficulties and pain, you’re bound to feel irritable and have trouble with concentration and your memory.

The symptoms of whiplash do not typically appear until at least 24 hours after the accident. In addition, it’s common for the symptoms to start out rather mild and continue to worsen until they hit their peak. Most symptoms stick around for weeks to months, although some might be permanent [9]. Seeking prompt care can help minimize the risk of moderate to severe disabilities.

Common Types of Whiplash Injury 

Whiplash injury types align with the type and severity of symptoms you experience. The impact on the musculoskeletal and neurological systems matters as well. Overall, there are five severity grades to define whiplash injuries, ranging from 0 to IV [10].  

Grade 0: No Whiplash Symptoms

In minor accidents, damage to the neck tissues can occur without causing any symptoms. The absence of any neck pain, stiffness, and other symptoms indicates that you’re dealing with a Grade 0 injury. If symptoms arise in the future, your doctor will change the grade to match their severity.

Grade I: Whiplash Neck Pain and Stiffness

As far as whiplash injury types go, a Grade 1 condition causes neck pain, stiffness, and tenderness. A whiplash headache commonly arises with the neck pain, resulting in an inability to complete your regular activities. At this grade, there are no other physical signs of an injury.

Grade II: Musculoskeletal Involvement

A Grade II injury occurs when there’s musculoskeletal involvement in addition to the neck pain and related symptoms. You might notice that it’s difficult to move your neck across the full range of motion. Or you may experience tenderness at certain points of your body, including the back of your neck and collarbones.

Grade III: Additional Neurological Signs

Can whiplash cause neurological problems? Yes. If neurological signs accompany the neck symptoms, you may have a Grade III injury. You might experience tingling and numbness in your limbs, for example, pointing to the development of whiplash nerve damage. Alternatively, you may have a whiplash concussion resulting in steadily worsening headaches, confusion, and memory loss.

Grade IV: Dislocation or Fracture

Whenever a dislocation or fracture occurs alongside whiplash symptoms, the injury gets rated at Grade IV. This type of neck injury results in damage to the discs in the cervical spine. At this stage, it’s common to experience the full range of symptoms throughout the recovery period.

The type of neck injury you experience directly influences the best course of treatment for your needs. Your doctor will fully assess your injury to determine its grade. Then, they will discuss how to treat whiplash and help you make a full recovery.  

Whiplash Recovery

Your approach to whiplash recovery will greatly depend on the grade and overall severity of your symptoms. You can get help figuring out how to move forward by seeking prompt medical care right after the accident occurs.

Whiplash Diagnosis

Before treatment of whiplash starts, you will need a full examination, x-rays, and other diagnostic tests. During the exam, expect the medical provider to check your range of motion, ask about symptoms, and feel for any abnormalities.

Depending on their exam findings, your doctor will likely look for signs of damage to your muscles, tendons, and discs by ordering imaging tests, such as:

  • X-rays: Simple images taken from multiple angles to check the condition of your bones
  • CT scan: Basic scan that creates a cross-sectional image of all the structures in your neck
  • MRI: In-depth scan designed to produce a 3D image of your bones and soft tissues

A radiologist will take a look at the imaging test results to determine if there is any obvious damage to the tissues in your neck. Your doctor will review all the findings to determine the injury grade and best course of treatment.

Whiplash Recovery Time

Most people who suffer from whiplash will experience some degree of recovery within a few weeks or months. However, for some people the symptoms may persist for many years after the initial injury. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how long it will take for whiplash symptoms to disappear completely, as each person’s body heals differently. However, there are things you can do to speed up your recovery time.

Whiplash Treatment

Treatment of whiplash greatly depends on the severity of your injury and the resulting symptoms. Your treatment plan will likely center around controlling pain and restoring range of motion. Ideally, by the end of the care process, you’ll be able to resume your normal activities without experiencing any additional symptoms.

Whiplash Pain Relief and Management

Pain management typically starts with a day or two of rest after symptoms arise. During that time, you may need to limit your neck movement with a foam collar whenever you need to get out of bed. After 48 hours, you must move around as tolerated to help bring adequate blood flow to the injured area.

While resting, applying cold packs to your neck can help decrease the pain further. Use the cold pack for about 20 minutes every three hours for the best results. After the first couple of days, switch to heat instead.

As a part of your care plan, your doctor may recommend using medications to control high pain levels. For mild to moderate symptoms, you’ll likely want to use over-the-counter pain relievers, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

Other pain relief methods your medical provider may suggest include:

  • Prescription muscle relaxants
  • Antidepressant medications
  • Lidocaine injections

You’ll check in with your doctor regularly during the recovery period for help adjusting the pain relief treatment. At each visit, just let them know if the proposed treatment for whiplash works well enough. If not, then your medical provider will help you try something else.

Range of Motion Restoration

To fully restore your range of motion, you’ll need to seek care from a physical therapist after getting through the initial phase of treatment. Your doctor can refer you to a well-reputed therapy professional to help you get started.

At your consultation appointment, the physical therapist will perform a complete exam to assess your injury and measure your range of motion. Using that info, they will create a care plan designed to restore your normal movement and gradually decrease your pain levels.

You will then need to return for care on the set schedule. At the visits, your therapist will guide you through key stretches and exercises plus perform additional treatments as needed. They may use a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit to activate the muscles and reduce pain.

Your physical therapist may also promote pain relief by using therapeutic ultrasound to bring heat to the injured area. In addition, they will provide a list of exercises to complete at home in-between visits. Together, the in-office treatment for whiplash and at-home exercises will help promote your recovery.

Additional Whiplash Injury Treatment Options

If you need even more support with your recovery, you can seek out care from a non-traditional care provider, such as:

  • Chiropractor
  • Massage therapist
  • Acupuncturist

You may also benefit from attending yoga classes or other mind-body therapies focused on gentle movements, breathing control, and mindfulness.

To best work toward making a full recovery, attend all your care appointments as recommended. Don’t hesitate to let your medical providers know if you’re not experiencing any improvements along the way. You may need to try multiple care approaches before finding what works for you.

How a Law Firm Can Help Recover Whiplash Injury Compensation

Whiplash can leave you dealing with months of pain and suffering plus an inability to work and handle all your other obligations. The financial repercussions may quickly start to pile up as a result, starting with your initial medical bills. Lost wages complicate matters further, as does the cost of bringing in help with childcare, housecleaning, and other services.

So, if your injury resulted from another party’s malicious or negligent actions, you should think about seeking compensation with help from an experienced Whiplash Lawyer. A trusted team of legal professionals understands just what it takes to prove your case in court. They will help minimize all the losses suffered due to the whiplash neck injury, ensuring you can move forward once again.

Filing Whiplash Claims for Injuries

When filing a neck injury claim, it’s important to follow these steps:

  1. Seek prompt medical care for all of your injuries
  2. Follow the advice of your doctors and other caregivers
  3. Write down your account of the events leading up to the accident
  4. File any pictures, video, or other evidence with your statement
  5. Contact your preferred legal team for a free consultation  
  6. Share all the details of the case with your personal injury lawyers
  7. Move through the legal process as recommended by your attorneys

If you’ve suffered a whiplash injury due to the negligent or malicious actions of another party, seeking the compensation you deserve is the best way to move forward. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Whiplash Injury

At What Speed Does Whiplash Occur?

Whiplash can occur at any speed and does not correlate with vehicle damage. The majority of insurance claims for this type of neck injury come in from accidents with a velocity change of up to 10 MPH [11]. Higher speed impacts often cause even more serious neck injuries.

How Serious Is A Whiplash Injury?

Most whiplash injuries are mild to moderate, but there’s a risk of serious damage to the structures in the neck. In case of severe cervical spine injuries, permanent disability or death could occur. Your doctor will grade the injuries based on their exam and imaging test findings.

Do You Need To See A Doctor For Whiplash?

You should always see a doctor for neck whiplash. The damage to the structures of your neck is not usually immediately apparent. A medical provider can perform the exams and imaging tests needed to grade your injuries. You can then get the care you need to make a full recovery.

How Long Does Whiplash Last?

When it comes to how long whiplash takes to heal, most people start to feel better within a few weeks to months. The majority of the healing takes place within the first few weeks. After that, it’s often slow going. You can speed up the healing process by getting care from a doctor, physical therapist, and other practitioners.  

Do Insurance Companies Pay Out for Whiplash?

Insurance companies will pay for whiplash and other soft-tissue injuries. The case can be difficult to prove, however, especially if the imaging tests do not show any notable damage. Getting help from a personal injury lawyer can help you make your claims and get the compensation you deserve.

What Do You Need To Claim Whiplash?

If you want to fight for compensation in court, you will need to provide proof that the neck injuries occurred. You may need to get your medical records, including from non-traditional providers, like chiropractors. Beyond that, an official accident report, witness statements, and documentation of all your expenses can help build a solid case.

More Helpful Resources from Our Whiplash Law Firm

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