Whiplash is the most frequently reported car insurance claims injury with payouts of $8.8 billion, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. With approximately 5.8 million car accidents every year in the U.S., whiplash is only second to back injuries in common pain ailments.
What is Whiplash
Whiplash is the sudden extension and flexion of the neck in response to jarring stress, typically associated with car accidents. In many cases, whiplash happens in rear-end collisions at speeds under 14 miles per hour. This is just enough force to injure the neck. While the pain is unbearable initially, for most whiplash victims, with proper care and treatment, a full recovery is expected over a few weeks or months, but some people report recurring pain a year or more.
During a car accident, the force from impact stretches the muscles in the neck and can tear both muscle and tendons. Doctors and chiropractors assess whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) in four criteria known as “grades.” They are (from least to most severe):
- Grade 0: no complaints, no physical signs of injury.
- Grade I: neck complaints but no physical signs of injury.
- Grade II: neck complaints and musculoskeletal signs (decreased range of motion and tenderness).
- Grade III: neck complaints and neurological signs (decreased range of motion and tenderness).
- Grade IV: neck complaints and fracture or dislocation. Its recommended that a patient see a specialist for this grade.
Following an accident, you may be seen and treated by emergency personnel where an emergency room doctor will check you for injury. If he or she determines that you have a mild or moderate case of whiplash, you may be treated using over-the-counter (OTC) medications, ice or heat compresses, muscle relaxants, or lidocaine injections (to numb the pain). A foam collar may be given to you to wear to help keep your neck stable. If you’re feeling any of the following symptoms below at the time of examination or days after, a follow-up by a doctor or chiropractor is recommended:
- Pain that includes stiffness in the neck and a noticeably decreased range of motion.
- Pain when moving your neck directionally
- Tenderness to the touch.
- Radiating headaches that start at the base of the skull.
- Delayed pain that gradually worsens over the span of days after your accident.
Whiplash Recovery Time
In most whiplash injuries, associated pain is felt immediately or days after the collision. In some cases, symptoms show up weeks or months later. If you have been in an accident and are feeling the symptoms of strain in your neck from whiplash, you can expect pain to last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Most people recover well and return to normal activities pain-free. Unfortunately for some, whiplash can lead to chronic neck pain and a decreased quality of life. For example, a study showed that nearly 40 percent of people with Grade II whiplash still lived with pain years later and felt the psychological, social, and economic impact as a result.
Whiplash Treatment Exercises
While the effects of whiplash normally begin to fade over several days to a week, in some cases, the injury can be permanent. Your doctor will advise you to keep neck movement to a minimum for the first 24 to 48 hours. As your neck heals, you can begin participating in activities that require movement from your neck. At this point, you can begin to participate in low-impact exercises like walking.
Whether your doctor recommends you work with a physical therapist or not, you will need to exercise your neck to help it regain strength. The best exercises will build weakened muscles—like your neck flexors which help absorb shock—and reduce your pain levels. Done correctly, treatment exercises can also help to reduce or prevent use injury or future neck pain. Gentle neck exercises as seen in the video below can support and strengthen the muscles that support your neck and help you get back to work and play.
How to Sleep with Whiplash
It’s important to rest your neck during the first 24 to 48 hours following your accident in order to heal. How you sleep is important to healing. If you have whiplash, you should never sleep on your stomach. Your goal is to keep a neutral head position while supporting the neck. Use a firm, contoured pillow for maximum comfort. You can also try sleeping on your side using a full body pillow placed between your knees. Draw your legs up towards your chest and try to relax as much as possible to achieve comfort. A sleep study found that whiplash patients had poorer sleep outcomes that required doctor’s intervention to alleviate symptoms. Keep an eye on your sleep as you recover and if you find that you are dealing with increased pain, discomfort, or insomnia, talk to your doctor to get an updated treatment plan.
Recovering from whiplash takes time and patience. Working together with your doctor will help to ensure that you don’t further injure your neck and that it heals properly. Through rest and exercise, your neck will heal and you can resume normal activity in a matter of weeks.