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Site of neck X-ray

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Alternative Names 
hyperextension injury of the neck

Whiplash occurs when the neck is suddenly and forcibly bent backward and forward. This causes injury to the joints of the neck, known as the cervical vertebrae, and to the surrounding soft tissue. The most common causes of whiplash are motor vehicle accidents, especially when the vehicle is struck from the rear.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
Whiplash generally causes:
  • neck pain, usually in the back of the neck along either side of the spine
  • pain with any motion of the neck
  • a stiff neck
  • headache
  • numbness or a tingling sensation in the upper body
What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
Whiplash injuries usually happen to a person who is not wearing a seat belt when a motor vehicle is rear-ended. As a result of whiplash, the ligaments in the neck may be stretched or even torn. Sometimes fractures in the vertebrae may also be involved.

What can be done to prevent the injury? 
Generally, wearing a seat belt and avoiding motion that causes sudden jerking of the head can prevent this injury.

How is the injury recognised? 
Whiplash is diagnosed with a complete physical examination and medical history, including details of the accident.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
Time and gentle range of motion exercises are usually the best treatments for whiplash. The doctor may also recommend:
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, to help reduce the pain and swelling
  • a cool compress applied to the neck
  • narcotic medications for severe pain
  • muscle relaxing medications for muscle spasms
  • Physiotherapy, if symptoms persist
What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Side effects depend on the medications used, but may include drowsiness, stomach upset, or allergic reactions.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
It may take from 2 to 4 weeks before the person regains full range of motion of the neck without pain. In more severe cases, symptoms may persist for months.The individual may have recurrent headaches. physiotherapy may be needed to help keep the neck muscles strong and healthy.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 16/10/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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