A whiplash neck sprain is common after a road traffic accident. Symptoms usually ease and go without any specific treatment. It is best to keep the neck active and moving. If required, painkillers can ease pain.
A whiplash neck sprain occurs when your head is suddenly jolted backwards and forwards (or forwards then backwards) in a whip-like movement, or is suddenly forcibly rotated. This can cause some neck muscles and ligaments to stretch more than normal (sprain).
The common cause is when you are in a vehicle that is hit from behind by another vehicle. Being in a vehicle hit from the side or front can also cause a whiplash sprain.
Damage to the spine or spinal cord sometimes occurs from a severe whiplash accident. This is uncommon and is not dealt with in this article. This article deals only with the common whiplash sprain to neck muscles and ligaments. It assumes that you have been assessed by a doctor and serious neck injury has been ruled out.
Whiplash neck sprains are common. Many people involved in road traffic accidents develop neck pain (with or without other injuries). Women are more prone to a whiplash sprain than men as their neck muscles are less strong.
Some people are surprised at having symptoms after a minor road traffic accident. Even slow vehicle bumps may cause enough jerking of the neck to cause symptoms.
Less commonly, a whiplash neck sprain can occur after a sporting injury, or even with everyday activities such as jolting the neck when you trip or fall.
Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose a whiplash neck sprain from the description of the way the accident occurred, the typical symptoms, and by examining you. An examination of your neck and arms can check that there are no signs of damage to the vertebrae or spinal nerves or spinal cord. If these are suspected then further tests may be recommended.
Aim to keep your neck moving as normally as possible. At first the pain may be bad, and you may need to rest the neck for a day or so. However, gently exercise the neck as soon as you are able. You should not let it 'stiffen up'.
Gradually try to increase the range of neck movements. Every few hours gently move the neck in each direction. Do this several times a day. As far as possible, continue with normal activities. You will not cause damage to your neck by moving it.
Painkillers are often helpful and may be recommended by your doctor.
Some other treatments which may be advised include:
A good posture may help. Check that your sitting position at work or at the computer is not poor. (That is, not with your head flexed forward with a stooped back.) Sit upright. Yoga, pilates, and the Alexander Technique all improve neck posture, but their value in treating neck pain is uncertain.
A firm supporting pillow seems to help some people when sleeping. Try not to use more than one pillow.
Treatment may vary and you should go back to see a doctor:
Other pain-relieving techniques may be tried if the pain becomes chronic (persistent). Chronic neck pain is also sometimes associated with anxiety and depression which may also need to be treated.
This will depend on the severity of the sprain, but the outlook is good in most cases. Symptoms often begin to improve after a few days. Most people make a full recovery within a few weeks. However, in a small number of people, some symptoms persist long-term.
Modern vehicles are increasingly designed to minimise the impact of collisions on the neck. However, all vehicles include head restraints on vehicle seats which may prevent some whiplash sprains. The head restraint should be as high as the top of the head. This may stop the head from jolting backwards in a road traffic accident.
However, up to 3 in 4 head restraints are not correctly adjusted. Head restraints may make a journey less comfortable when they are correctly adjusted as they will not allow your head to lie back. However, if you have had a whiplash neck sprain, you may be more particular about correctly adjusting the head restraint for yourself and for other passengers.