What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a type of neck sprain which occurs when your head is suddenly jolted in a whip-like movement or is forcibly rotated. A common cause is being involved in a road traffic accident where your vehicle is hit by another. Whiplash neck sprains are common. Some people are surprised at having symptoms even after a minor road traffic accident. A whiplash can also occur after a sporting injury, or even with everyday activities such as jolting the neck when you trip or fall.

What are the symptoms of a whiplash neck sprain?

  • Pain and stiffness in the neck. It may take several hours after the accident for symptoms to appear. The pain and stiffness often become worse on the day after the accident.
  • Turning or bending the neck may be difficult.
  • You may also feel pain or stiffness in the shoulders or down the arms, upper and lower part of the back.
  • Headache is a common symptom.
  • Some people feel tired, irritable and struggle to concentrate for a few days

You should seek further advice if you experience any of the following:

  • loss of feeling (numbness) or persistent pins and needles in part of an arm or hand
  • weakness in your arms or legs
  • Problems with walking or sitting upright
  • Persistent dizziness, fainting, double vision or problems with your speech or swallowing
  • Severe pain despite taking paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • An "electric shock" feeling in your neck/back which may go into your arms/legs

Contact your GP and ask for an urgent appointment or call 111 as it is important to rule out anything more serious

How is a whiplash neck sprain diagnosed?

A qualified health care professional will be able to diagnose whiplash from the description of the way the accident occurred, the typical symptoms, and by examining you.

What is the best way to manage a whiplash neck sprain?

  • Exercise your neck and keep active

You may need to rest for up to 48 hours after the injury. However, it’s important to start moving the neck as soon as you are able. Try to move the neck in each direction every few hours and gradually increase the range of neck movements. Aim to continue your usual activities as much as you can.

  • Pain killers

Taking painkillers may control the pain so that you can keep mobile and carry out your usual activities. Painkillers may include paracetamol or a paracetamol/codeine mixture and anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen. Speak to your GP or a pharmacist for further advice.

  • Heat

You may find that applying heat to the sore area helps relieve your pain and any associated muscular tightness/spasm. Use a microwaveable wheat bag or a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. Keep it on for 15 – 20 minutes, checking your skin regularly to minimise the risk of suffering burn. Repeat up to three times a day.

  • Lifestyle Factors

There are many lifestyle factors that can have a negative impact on neck pain. These include quality and quantity of sleep, increased stress and low mood as well as reduced activity levels. It is important to be aware of how these factors may be influencing your pain.

  • Relaxation and managing stress

Engaging in relaxation and managing stress can help to reduce the sensitivity of the pain. Stress, anxiety and tension can prolong recovery. Relaxation may involve practicing something specific such as mindfulness or breathing techniques or less specific such as taking a bath or reading a book.

What is the outlook after a whiplash neck sprain?

This will depend on the severity of the sprain but the prognosis is very good in most cases. Symptoms often improve within 6-12 weeks. If the events surrounding the injury have impacted you psychologically and caused a strong stress reaction where you find yourself experiencing nightmares, flashbacks about the accident or feeling more irritable than normal then this can negatively affect recovery. If this is the case, talk to your GP or physiotherapist about psychological/wellbeing support that may help.