Whiplash is a term used to describe a neck injury caused by a sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways. It often occurs after a sudden impact such as a road traffic accident. The vigorous movement of the head damages the ligaments and tendons in the neck.
Causes of whiplash
Road accidents are the main cause of whiplash, but it can also occur following:
- a sudden blow to the head – for example, during contact sports such as boxing or rugby
- a slip or fall where the head is suddenly and violently jolted backwards
- being struck on the head by a heavy or solid object
Whiplash can usually be diagnosed from a description of your symptoms. Tests and scans are not usually required.
Visit your GP if you have recently had a road accident or a sudden impact to your head and are experiencing pain and stiffness in your neck.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and details of how the injury happened. They may also examine your neck for signs of muscle spasms, tenderness and to assess the range of movement in your neck.
X-rays and scans, such as computerised tomography (CT)or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), will usually only be recommended if a fracture or other problem is suspected.
Tendons are tough, fibrous bands that connect muscles to bone. Ligaments are the fibrous connective tissues that link two bones together at a joint.
Common symptoms of whiplash include:
- neck pain and stiffness
- tenderness over the neck muscles
- reduced and painful neck movements
After an accident, the symptoms of whiplash often take a while (6-12 hours) to develop.
The neck pain and stiffness is often worse on the day after the injury and may get worse for several days afterwards.