Whiplash occurs as a result of an abrupt energy transfer that results in the structures within the neck to straighten and engage in a bend beyond that which is considered to be the normal motion range. It is often described as being a “neck strain” or a “neck sprain”. According to research, over one million individuals in the United States alone experience whiplash a year.

Recovery may take an extensive amount of time – up to months – but it is possible. In some instances, the sufferer may continue to experience adverse effects for longer.

In approximately 10% of all whiplash patients, the pain and discomfort may lead to complications that interfere with their daily lives. In this guide, we will provide an overview of whiplash and how it may be treated. Additionally, we will include a section with exercises you may perform on your own that will aid in recovery.

Treating Whiplash

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a unique collection of various symptoms that occur immediately after damage has occurred within the neck. The joints that are located in between the vertebrae, the cervical muscle set, the discs, the various ligaments, and even the roots of the nerves in the area may experience damage when whiplash occurs. The abrupt forward and/or backward-type motion or jerk of the head is what causes whiplash to develop. The whiplash injury may result from a car accident, a fall, experiencing a blow to the head, excessive jerking from rides at amusement parks, and similar situations.

The Most Common Symptoms of Whiplash

While many may experience the symptoms of whiplash immediately, it is not at all uncommon for individuals to experience whiplash symptoms delayed for up to 24 hours or longer after the trauma occurs. Whiplash symptoms may vary from one person to another. The following outlines the most common symptoms of whiplash:

  • There may be pain in the neck region and/or stiffness.
  • It is common for pain to occur in the shoulder area or in the region between the shoulder blades.
  • A headache may occur when a whiplash injury occurs.
  • Low back pain may accompany a whiplash injury.
  • Pain and/or numbness may occur within the arm or the hand. In some instances, this may affect both the arm and the hand.
  • Many individuals may suffer from bouts of dizziness.
  • A whiplash injury may result in cognitive issues, such as problems with concentration and issues with the memory.
  • Mood complications – such as irritability and mood swings – may occur with those that have a whiplash injury.
  • Extreme fatigue and sleep disturbances are common among those that have whiplash.
  • Many may experience ringing in the ears.

Contact a Doctor Immediately If You Experience These Symptoms of Whiplash

In most instances, whiplash may be treated at home using a variety of remedies and therapies. Most symptoms of whiplash are common and should not cause any alarm. If any of the following symptoms develop, you should contact a doctor immediately as a more serious issue may be occurring:

  • While pain and stiffness in the neck region is common, there could be an issue that has developed if the pain goes away and then it suddenly returns for an unknown reason.
  • If the pain is so severe that you cannot stand it after being diagnosed with whiplash, it is advised that you seek medical care immediately.
  • If pain, tingling sensations, or numbness starts to occur within the shoulders, the arms, or the legs, it could indicate a complication.
  • If you notice that the arms or the legs become weak, there could be a more serious issue occurring.
  • Problems with either the bladder or the bowels are not common symptoms of whiplash; however, if these develop after your whiplash injury, you need to seek medical attention right away.

The Diagnosis of a Whiplash Injury

Diagnosing a whiplash injury may prove to be exceptionally challenging. This is due to the fact that injuries to the soft tissues of the body are not commonly seen on traditional X-ray systems. The good news is, there are other types of diagnostic tests that may be used to observe injuries in these areas.

The two most commonly used are CAT Scans and MRIs. You will be asked about the possible whiplash injury you experienced, the symptoms that you are experiencing, and will receive a physical examination.

If the doctor deems it necessary, either an X-ray, CAT Scan, or MRI may be ordered. In some instances, a medical professional may elect to use a combination of these diagnostic tools. Additionally, a PET Scan or a Diffuse Tensor Imaging (DTI) test may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis of a whiplash injury.

Standard Medical Treatment for a Whiplash Injury

To date, there is no one single treatment for relief; however, most doctors will encourage the use of over-the-counter medications for the relief of pain and inflammation. In some instances, prescription medications may be prescribed.

The most commonly prescribed are those designed for pain relief, inflammation, relaxation of the muscles, and nerve pain.

Certain types of exercises, massage therapy, the utilization of heat and ice, injections, and ultrasound may also be used to treat the symptoms of whiplash. In recent years, physical therapy has been proven to be highly effective for those with whiplash. Alternative treatments include chiropractic care, electronic nerve stimulation, and acupuncture.

Whiplash is More Than Just a Pain

According to research, whiplash-based disorders result in an extremely high financial burden on society and those that suffer from them. The costs associated with treatment, the absences from work, medical care, and even litigation result in expenses of billions of dollars each and every single year.

It has been found that 4 out of every 1,000 people will experience a whiplash injury each year. Additionally, the symptoms of whiplash will likely become chronic for those that experience the condition.

Despite the exceptionally high costs, the high rate of incident, and the possibility of the issue transforming into a chronic disability, a solid treatment method has yet to be discovered; however, the use of physical therapy is quickly gaining in popularity as a treatment method because of its high success rate in helping whiplash patients successfully recover.

Whiplash Physical Therapy

If you experience a whiplash injury, you may initiate the recovery process by participating in physical therapy. At the beginning of your injury, you will immediately discover that you experience a decrease in your overall range of motion, an immense amount of pain, and swelling within the tissues and the joints. These symptoms stem from the inflammatory process that occurs when an injury happens.

Physical therapy utilizes a variety of modalities to treat whiplash symptoms.

These include the use of ultrasound technology, massage, electrical stimulation, and ice. As you advance in the healing process, gentle exercises are introduced to that help in increasing range of motion and promoting the healing process.

As the healing process continues to advance, you will find that the muscles become stiff. At this point, a physical therapist may start to introduce stretching exercises, manual forms of therapy, and those that aid in increasing the strength of the body.

These physical therapy treatments will likely last for a period of about two weeks. By this time, the therapist will work closely with you to get you as close as possible to your baseline, or your normal functioning level.

The stretching exercises will be intensified, the manual therapy will place a focus on flexibility and range of motion, and the strengthening exercises will also be intensified.

The length of time that you work with a physical therapist will vary. If you had a muscular injury as a result of the whiplash, your total recovery time will be anywhere from as little as four weeks to as long as six weeks. If you had an injury with your soft tissues, the recovery time will last anywhere from eight weeks to as long as twelve weeks.

Now, not every person is alike.

You may be one that has a shorter recovery time. Depending on your general health and any underlying medical conditions that you have, your recovery time could be longer. While it is true that you may have to indulge in physical therapy for several weeks or months, it is important to understand that you will reap the rewards of physical therapy immediately upon starting.

Woman with Whiplash

The Best Exercises for a Whiplash Injury

While indulging in physical therapy for your whiplash injury, you will be introduced to a variety of exercises that will help you in the recovery process. The following outlines these exercises with the steps involved in performing them:

Chin Tucks

This exercise is highly beneficial in stretching those muscles that are located within the cervical spine. You may perform this exercise lying down or in a seated position. For the purpose and intent of this article, we will focus on performing in a seated position:

  1. First, sit in a chair practicing good posture.
  2. Look forward and move the head back, ensuring that the chin is tucked down.
  3. Hold the tuck for approximately 5 seconds and release, moving the head back forward.
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times, depending on your comfort level.

Side to Side Rotation of the Head

This exercise aids in increasing the overall mobility in and around the neck. It also helps eliminate any tightness that may be occurring in this region. To perform, sit in a seat and do the following:

  1. Practice appropriate posture
  2. Rotate the head towards the right and hold for 20 seconds.
  3. Move the head back forward.
  4. Then, gently rotate the head towards the left and hold for 20 seconds.
  5. Hold for 20 seconds.
  6. Continue this exercise for up to 5 times in each direction.


This activity is designed to strengthen up the muscles of the upper back and the neck. To perform, do the following steps:

  1. Place the palm of your hand directly on your forehead.
  2. Push the head towards the palm, being careful to ensure that you do not bend the neck.
  3. Hold the position for anywhere from 3 seconds to 5 seconds.
  4. You may perform this exercise up to 10 times each day.

Scapular Stabilization

This exercise is designed to alleviate pain within the neck and the upper back region. To perform this activity, do the following:

  1. Stand with your head facing straight, your shoulders in a relaxed position, and your arms by your side.
  2. Gently, move the shoulders towards each other. Your chest should move forward when doing this.
  3. Hold the position for 10 seconds.
  4. Release the position in a gentle manner and repeat.
  5. You may do up to 5 of these at a time for a period of twice each day. As you get stronger and the activity gets easier to do, you may perform more each day.

Levator Scapular Stretching

This exercise helps to stretch the levator scapulae area in the upper back region. To complete, follow these steps:

  1. Sit while practicing appropriate posture with the shoulders down.
  2. Use one hand to hold the seat.
  3. Turn the chin towards the shoulder. You will feel a slight stretching on the opposite area of the neck.
  4. Hold the position for about 20 seconds, then perform the exact exercise on the opposite side.
  5. You may do this exercise up to 2 times daily until it becomes easier and then you may perform more, as you like.

Let Us Help

We here at Back to Motion Physical Therapy know and understand the challenges associated with a whiplash injury. We can assist you with a physical therapy regimen that will help you quickly and easily recover from your injury. Not only do we offer a wide range of stretches, exercises, and other physical therapy tools to assist you, you may also choose to indulge in our antigravity treadmill, dry needling, and other types of rehabilitation services. For more information, contact us today by calling: 303-832-5577

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