What is Whiplash?

Whiplash and whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) encompass a range of neck injuries, usually caused by a sudden extension and flexion of the neck. It may also be referred to as a neck sprain or strain and commonly follows an automobile accident, although many situations may lead to whiplash.


Vigorous movements of the head that stretches the ligaments and tendons in the neck usually cause whiplash. There are various types of incidents that commonly lead to whiplash, some of the most common include:

  • Automobile accident
  • Bike or motorcycle accident
  • Contact sports (e.g. boxing and rugby)
  • A fall when head is jolted and knocked against another object

However, there are many different possible situations that may result in whiplash.


Symptoms of whiplash may begin immediately after the incident but often may be delayed or become more severe over the following days. Symptoms of the condition may include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Paresthesias
  • Shoulder or back pain
  • Memory loss
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

In most cases, symptoms of whiplash such as subside within a week or two and a full recovery is made within three months. However, some people may continue to suffer from symptoms of whiplash on an ongoing basis.


Diagnosis of whiplash is usually made on description of symptoms and a prior event involving a blow to the head that may be responsible for causing the symptoms.

Physical examination is required, although scans and imaging techniques such as X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are only necessary if a fracture or another underlying problem is suspected.


The standard treatment of whiplash involves a combination of medication and physical therapy. Symptoms will often subside of their own accord and some people with mild cases may not require specific treatment.

A physiotherapist can help to improve the muscular recovery of the area and may suggest several motion exercises can help the muscles to heal. Other physical therapy techniques, such as heat packs for relief of muscle tension may also be required. Although movement is usually encouraged, in some cases a cervical collar may be needed for 2-3 weeks following the injury to aid healing of tendons and ligaments.

The pain of whiplash can vary in severity, but most people require some form of pain relief, particularly for a short time immediately after the incident. Paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are often the choice of preference.

In some cases, antidepressants or muscle relaxants may also be prescribed. This depends greatly on the specific circumstances of the incident and the effect it had on the patient, as well the duration of symptoms.


As by far the most common cause of whiplash is motor vehicle accidents, offering protection within vehicles against strain to the neck in the case of an accident could help to prevent symptoms of whiplash.

Some automobile manufacturing companies, such as Volvo, have taken an interest in this area and researched the situations linked to symptoms in great detail. This has led to innovative ideas and development of mechanisms that may be installed in vehicles to protect against whiplash. This continues to be perfected in practice but holds considerable potential for the safety of drivers in the future.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018

Yolanda Smith

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.


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