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How To Treat A Whiplash Injury

Whiplash injury occurs when the head moves forward or backward suddenly and is then immediately snapped in the opposite direction. This sudden and forceful motion causes the ligaments and the muscles in the neck to stretch and tear. It may also cause damage to the nerves and in more severe cases injury to the intervertebral joints, cervical muscles, discs and ligaments of the neck or upper back.

Common Causes Of Whiplash Injury

Driving accidents are the most common causes of whiplash injury. You could be injured if a car hits you from behind or if you ram straight into a solid obstacle in front of you while driving. You do not necessarily have to be driving at high speed to suffer a whiplash injury. You could get injured even when driving at a low speed of 15 miles per hour and even if you are wearing your seat belt.

Contact sports such as rugby and football are the second most common causes of whiplash injury.

Other causes include being struck on the head by an object falling from height, slips, trips and falls, bicycle or motorbike accidents and being assaulted.

Symptoms Of Whiplash Injury

Neck pain is the most notable symptom of a whiplash injury. The pain may be mild or severe depending on the extent of the injury. In milder cases moving the neck can be painful and in severe cases, impossible.

This pain may be accompanied by tightness or spasms of the muscles in the neck, shoulder or upper back region, pain down one or both arms and a tingling or numb feeling in the finger tips, arms, hands and legs.

If the oesophagus is injured, chewing and swallowing can suddenly become very difficult.

Treating A Whiplash Injury

The neck is a very fragile part of the body. Any injury to this area should be treated immediately to keep it from getting any worse. While there are several measures you can take to prevent any further deterioration, it is most important to first consult a qualified doctor and get a proper diagnosis.

Intervertebral DiscsA doctor will conduct several tests to identify the exact location of the injury and as well as the precise cause of the injury. The treatment required for a torn muscle or ligament in the neck is quite different from the treatment for a damaged intervertebral joint or a cervical disc.

There are a few treatment measures that are common for all types of whiplash injuries. However, your doctor may prescribe some specific treatments depending on the extent and location of the injury.

When you have suffered a whiplash injury the first priority is to stabilise the neck and reduce the pain and swelling.

Applying ice or a cold pack to the injured area immediately after the accident will help to minimize the swelling and the pain. The cold pack must be kept on the area for at least 15 to 20 minutes. This should be repeated every hour for the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury.

Your doctor may also prescribe some type of pain medicine, anti-inflammatory medication or muscle relaxers to help alleviate the persistent pain and swelling.

During the days following your injury, it is advisable to move the head and neck as little as possible until the pain and the tightness in the muscles has eased off completely. This restricted movement of the head and neck gives the injured muscles, ligaments and tendons time to heal and prevents any potential further damage.

During this time, it is also absolutely important to avoid all strenuous activities, particularly those that involve heavy lifting. Heavy lifting typically puts a lot of stress on the shoulders and neck region and could worsen the injury.

It is also best not to participate in any type of sport at this time as sudden movements and the impact of running put you at higher risk and makes the pain and stiffness worse.

Avoid using a high pillow while sleeping as this tends to keep your neck in an extended position, which could aggravate the injury. A specially designed orthopaedic pillow or a tightly rolled-up pillow placed under your neck are far better alternatives to your regular pillow.

If you find it impossible to keep your neck up because of the severe pain, your doctor may recommend using a soft foam collar. These are specially designed collars that are worn around the neck to give it some much-needed support. In most cases, a soft foam collar should be used only for very short periods at a time, typically 2 to 3 days. It should not be worn for a longer period unless advised by the doctor.

After the pain has gone, your doctor may suggest certain physiotherapy exercises to help strengthen the neck muscles and make them more flexible. These may include only motion exercises and muscle strengthening exercises or the exercises may be combined with electrical stimulation or ultrasound. Some physiotherapy exercises can be done at home but many will require you to make regular visits to a physiotherapy specialist clinic.

In addition to traditional treatment measures, there are also a few alternate medical interventions such as chiropractic massage and acupuncture that have proven to be extremely effectively for treating whiplash injuries.

Whiplash injuries can be healed but they require time so you need to be patient and follow your doctor’s instructions faithfully. Trying to rush the healing process will not help. It can take up to about three months for the injuries to heal completely and for you to get back to relative normality again. If the symptoms are more severe, it may take up to 6 months to a year to heal completely.

In most cases your doctor will also advise you to continue taking precautionary measures, especially with regards to moving your neck and head, even after the pain and swelling has subsided. This is because the neck muscles may still be weak and need time to heal completely and regain their full strength. If you start engaging in strenuous activities too quickly, you could risk tearing the weakened muscles again.

Your Whiplash Injury

Have you ever suffered a whiplash injury? Did you find any treatments particularly beneficial or not helpful at all?

We welcome any comments you might have.

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  • I had a car accident to days ago, and this unfortunate incident caused severe pain on my back. It’s been hurting for days, and I have no idea how to get rid of the unbearable pain. Interestingly, you’ve mentioned that chiropractors are trained specialists in adjusting the spine. I’m suddenly curious about this treatment, I wonder where I can find one.

    • In normal times I’m sure you wouldn’t have trouble finding a chiropractor wherever you are, not sure about now with the current situation. Good luck and hope it gets sorted.

  • I was rear ended by a truck at a stop light. It felt like a train hit me. I was hospitalized for 3 days with pain and CT scans showed some signs of narrowing in the neck. For 9 months I went to 3 physiotherapists, 5 medications, and a neurosurgeon. I had dizziness, nausea, headaches, crying jags for 9 months due to pain, could not do anything, and went to the emergency room twice. Medicine didn’t help. Finally had a bone scan from a gamma machine which showed from the accident I had a marked showing of inflammation in the C6 vertebra due to the whiplash. Ask for a bone scan!

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