Whiplash is a type of neck injury that occurs when an incident — such as a motor vehicle collision —causes your head to forcibly move forward and back, or vice versa, similar to the cracking of a whip.
The sudden motion can cause injury to the muscles, tendons, nerves, and discs of your neck. Depending on how serious these injuries are, symptoms of whiplash can be mild to severe.
Causes and Risk Factors of Whiplash
Automobile accidents are a prime cause of whiplash — particularly those involving a rear-end collision. But other incidents that snap your head in a forward or backward motion can also lead to this type of neck injury. Whiplash can also be caused by the following:
- Sports injuries, especially from contact or high-impact sports such as karate, football, boxing, gymnastics, or skiing
- Amusement park rides, such as a roller coaster, which can jerk your head quickly backward and forward
- Physical assault, such as punching or shaking. (This type of injury is commonly seen in shaken baby syndrome.)
- A fall
That said, certain factors, such as your age, sex, and medical history — for example, arthritis in your neck — can affect the severity of your whiplash symptoms. According to Rush University Medical Center, older people tend to have decreased muscle flexibility and strength and their discs and ligaments may not be as elastic, which means their neck could sustain more damage than a younger person’s when it is forcibly moved back and forth.
Using seatbelts (and for kids, the correct child safety seat) properly is another factor that can play a role in how serious your whiplash injury may be.
Duration of Whiplash
Many people with whiplash recover within a few weeks to a few months; others can experience chronic and long-lasting symptoms like persistent pain, even after receiving treatment such as pain medication and physical therapy.
Complications of Whiplash
While many people fully recover within three months of their injury, others may experience ongoing neck pain and headaches for several months or even years.
Related Conditions and Causes of Whiplash
Some conditions linked to whiplash include:
- Depression Pain can affect your mood and emotions, and depression has been associated with common symptoms of whiplash such as neck pain, dizziness, numbness or tingling in the arms and hands, and vision problems, according to Physiopedia.
- Cognitive problems People with whiplash can experience trouble with concentration or memory due to pain, medication side effects, or a mild brain injury, according to NASS.
- Changes in muscle and motor function Whiplash has been associated with neuromuscular changes such as loss of balance, loss of muscle strength, impaired movement, and loss of eye movement control, according to a study published in the Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) While PTSD has commonly been associated with severe injuries following a car accident, there is also evidence that it may be present in people who experience less severe road accidents involving whiplash injuries, according to the Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy.
Resources We Love
North American Spine Society
This organization comprises healthcare professionals who specialize in the care and treatment of the spine. They offer a detailed overview of whiplash injuries, from facts about the anatomy of the spine to symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of the condition.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
This site offers good, basic facts about neck sprain and features links to other related information pages on cervical fracture (broken neck), neck pain, and more, all from the perspective of orthopedic surgeons.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
This National Institutes of Health page gives a good basic rundown of whiplash symptoms and also provides links to additional information on patient organizations, publications, and clinical trials.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
Whiplash. Mayo Clinic. February 5, 2020.
Whiplash (Neck Strain, Neck Sprain). Cleveland Clinic. October 7, 2020.
Whiplash Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. March 27, 2019.
Bragg K, Varacallo M. Cervical Sprain. StatPearls. June 28, 2020.
Jull G. Whiplash Continues Its Challenge. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. September 30, 2016.
5 Facts About Whiplash. Rush University Medical Center. June 27, 2014.
Whiplash and Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAS). North American Spine Society.
Whiplash Associated Disorders. Physiopedia.
Sterling M. Whiplash-Associated Disorder: Musculoskeletal Pain and Related Clinical Findings. Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy. November 2011.
Stemper B, Corner B. Whiplash-Associated Disorders: Occupant Kinematics and Neck Morphology. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. October 2016.
Whiplash Injury. Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Whiplash Injury. Cedars Sinai.