How to manage whiplash

Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of the neck from an abrupt jerking or whip-like movement of the head. Remember that this type of movement strains on the ligaments and muscles of the neck more than their normal range of motion.

When a vehicle abruptly stops during a crash or struck from behind, the seatbelt will keep the body of the individual from being thrusted forward. On the other hand, the head will snap in a forward and backward manner, thus resulting to whiplash.

Potential causes of whiplash


Apply an ice pack or heat pad over the sore areas.

Aside from vehicular accidents, the whiplash can be triggered by riding in roller coasters and other amusement park rides, sports injuries or being shaken or punched. The individual can feel better early on, but the stiffness and pain can return several days later. Remember that these symptoms can persist for months or even years. The discomfort experienced by the individual can involve the neighboring muscle groups in the chest, head, arms and shoulders.

First aid for whiplash

  • You can provide over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Apply an ice pack or heat pad over the sore areas. A good method is to use an ice pack for the initial 48-72 hours and then use a heat pack later. Taking a hot shower or warm compress can also help provide heat. Just be careful not to fall asleep with the ice pack or heating pad on since it might lead to burns and frostbite.
  • The individual should reduce or stop his/her normal physical activity for the initial few days since this helps calm the symptoms as well as reduce the swelling.
  • It is recommended to engage in range-of-motion exercises to stretch the neck muscles gently.
  • If possible, ask someone to massage gently the painful areas.
  • The individual should sleep on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a special neck pillow.
  • You can provide the individual with a soft neck collar for a short period of time to reduce the discomfort. Using a soft neck collar for an extended period will eventually weaken the neck muscles as well as prolong the neck pain.

It is vital to minimize the activity level during the initial days and then steadily resume usual activities. Avoid activities that involve rigorous lifting or twisting motion of the neck or back during the initial 6 weeks after the pain starts. After 2-3 weeks, steadily start the exercise again. Working with a physical therapist will ensure that proper stretching and strengthening movements are started and how they should be carried out.

When to consult a doctor

A doctor should be consulted if the following are present:

  • The neck pain is intense
  • Neck pain and stiffness recurs after they already cleared up
  • Pain spreads to the arms or shoulders
  • There are issues with the bowel or bladder
  • There is tingling, numbness or weakness in the legs or arms

How to prevent whiplash

The headrests on the vehicles can help minimize the severity of the neck pain from any vehicular accident. Try to ensure that the headrest is properly positioned based on the height. If the individual ends up with whiplash, he/she should learn proper stretching exercises once the neck has healed. This reduces the chance that neck stiffness or pain can recur.


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