In your neck there are seven bones that make up it's structure with a shock-absorbing disc between each bone. Your neck is able to be quite flexible and mobile as it relies on your muscles and ligaments for support. What "whiplash" is, is when these tissues are stretched too hard or too far, much like a rope that is being frayed when it is pulled harder and further than it can sustain.
The main event that leads to whiplash is being involved in an auto accident. Up to 83% of people involved in an accident will suffer some form of a whiplash injury. The extent of how severe your injury is can be predicted by several factors. On average the individuals who are struck from behind in a rear-end collision generally suffer the most injury.
Being struck by a vehicle that is bigger than yours also increases your risk. Your vehicle does not need to be visibly damaged in order for you to be injured. In reality the damage to your vehicle has little correlation with how severe your injury will turn out to be. Most modern cars have shock-absorbing bumpers that minimize damage to the vehicle, but do not necessarily protect the occupants in low-speed collisions. Rear-end impacts of less than 5 MPH routinely give rise to significant symptoms.
Other factors that may in some cases lead to an increase in your chance of injury include: improperly positioned head restraints, wet or icy roads, having your head rotated or extended at the time of impact, and being unaware of the impending collision. As we get older the tissues that stabilize our neck become less elastic, and our risk of injury increases. Females are more likely to be injured than males. Those who have pre-existing arthritis are more likely to develop complaints.
Symptoms can start almost immediately or have a delayed onset. At the start, you may notice some soreness in the front of your neck that generally goes away quite quickly. Ongoing complaints often include some neck pain and general discomfort that becomes sharper when you move your head. The pain is generally found in the back side of your neck but can spread to your shoulders or between your shoulder blades. Tension headaches are known to typically accompany neck injuries. Dizziness and TMJ problems are possible.
Symptoms may in some cases become worse over time. Rest may relieve your symptoms but unfortunately they often leads to stiffness. Always inform your doctor if you have any signs of a more serious injury, including a severe or "different" headache, loss of consciousness, confusion, or "fogginess," difficulty concentrating, dizziness, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, change in vision, nausea, vomiting, numbness or tingling in your arms or face, weakness or clumsiness in your arms and hands, decreased bowel or bladder control, or fever.
Sprain/strain injuries cause your normal and highly elastic tissue to be replaced with much less elastic "scar tissue." This process can lead to ongoing pain and even arthritis in some cases. Over half of those who are injured will have neck pain that will last up to a year after the initial accident. Seeking early and appropriate treatment, like the type provided in our office, is of the utmost importance. If you are riding with others, it is quite possible that they too were injured. It would be in every passenger's best interest to be examined as soon as possible.
Depending on how severe your injury is you may need to limit heavy activity for a while, but you must understand that pain is a completely normal reaction to injury and that significantly limiting your activities of daily living may delay your recovery. You should try to "act as usual" and resume normal daily activities as soon as possible.
For most people it is best to avoid heavy lifting, and to take frequent breaks from prolonged activity when possible, particularly overhead activity. Patients suffering from Whiplash should also try to avoid wearing heavy headgear, like a hardhat or helmet, if possible. Cervical collars rarely help and should be avoided unless otherwise directed. You can apply ice for 10-15 minutes each hour for the first couple of days. Heat may be helpful thereafter. Ask your doctor for specific ice/heat recommendations. Some patients report partial relief from sports creams.