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
It’s important to keep in mind that the incident that causes the whiplash injury doesn’t have to involve a great amount of speed or force. For example, many whiplash injuries occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents that happen at speeds as low as 5 to 10 mph, according to Rush University Medical Center.And an article published in October 2016 in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy notes that whiplash injuries that result from low-speed car crashes “continue to be a significant cause of neck pain and disability in the general population.”The severity of the whiplash injury isn’t necessarily determined by the speed of the vehicle, either. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can still sustain a serious injury even if the cars were moving slowly when they collided.

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.

Neck pain is the most common chronic symptom, but people may also experience persistent headaches and dizziness, according to StatPearls.Chronic pain and other ongoing symptoms can interfere with work and physical function and may impact your lifestyle and economic health.

Related Conditions and Causes of Whiplash

Whiplash-associated disorders, or WAD, have been linked to a range of physiological and psychological conditions. According to Physiopedia, WAD can cause motor and sensory function problems, as well as psychological distress.

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.


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