What is a whiplash injury and what symptoms to look out for?

Complaints of neck injury from sudden stopping events pre-dates the motor vehicle and started with railroad / train incidents.  The first terminology for the neck injury / pain complaint was “railway spine”.

The common cause in modern times is the rear end motor vehicle accident, where the neck is subject to sudden (and unanticipated) movements back, forwards and then stopped at seatbelt.  This creates large stresses to the neck structures, given the head weight and quick speed of movement.  Research shows whiplash can occur with side and front on collisions too.


Most often pain is felt in the neck, closely associated with headaches.  Within 24 hours pain can be felt in the shoulder girdle and nerve symptoms down the arms.  Look out for these symptoms:

You should always consult medical practitioner following any accident where you feel severe or prolonged pain.  Here is a graphic of things not to ignore:


Following medical advice throughout your recovery is key.  Here is an extract from spine-health.com on self-treatment and assisted treatment options:

Self-Care for Whiplash

If whiplash symptoms are mild to moderate, some self-care options typically include:

  • Rest. While it is good to stay active if possible, it also makes sense to take things easier the first few days. If a certain motion or activity exacerbates the neck pain, then avoid or limit that movement until the neck has more time to heal. 
  • Ice and/or heat. In the first couple days following a whiplash injury, applying ice can reduce pain and swelling in the neck. During this time window, the ice or cold packs can temporarily close small blood vessels and prevent a worsening of the swelling. Then ice or heat can be applied alternately a few days after the injury has occurred. 

See Heat Therapy Cold Therapy

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Some common OTC pain relievers include acetaminophen (Tylenol) [in Australia we call this paracetamol] and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil, Aleve, and Motrin. Acetaminophen can block pain receptors, and NSAIDs reduce inflammation. Despite being readily available at the store, it is important to carefully read the OTC label and follow its directions.

See Medications for Back Pain and Neck Pain

In the past, some doctors advised whiplash patients to wear a cervical collar to immobilize the neck in the beginning, but this advice oftentimes made the problem worse. Immobilization allowed the neck muscles to weaken and become more problematic for the cervical spine.

See Cervical Spine Anatomy and Neck Pain

Medical Care for Whiplash

If whiplash pain or related symptoms are severe and/or do not seem to be going away, medical care should be sought. Some combination of the following treatments could be used:

  • Physical therapy. A treatment program run by a trained physical therapist or qualified health professional can help improve the neck’s strength and flexibility, which in some cases can relieve stress on the spine and reduce pain. 

See Manual Physical Therapy for Pain Relief

  • Prescription pain medications. If over-the-counter drugs have not successfully managed the pain, then prescription-strength medications, such as muscle relaxants and opioids, could be prescribed under the careful supervision of a physician. 

See Narcotic Pain Medications

  • Injections. In some cases, an injection is used to target a specific area. Some examples could be cervical epidural steroid injection (to reduce nerve and tissue inflammation from a disc herniation), cervical facet joint injection (to provide relief within the joint), and trigger point injection (to help an irritated muscle bundle).

See Facet Joint Injection Procedure

  • Psychotherapy. If for any reason a person develops a psychological condition in the aftermath of a whiplash injury, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health professional can provide counseling to help work through, understand, and manage the issues. Medications could also be prescribed.

See Psychotherapy for Depression

  • Manual manipulation. A chiropractor or other certified medical professional typically uses his or her hands to make manual adjustments to the spine in an effort to increase range of motion and reduce pain. 

See Chiropractic Treatments for Whiplash

  • Acupuncture. Some people report benefits from acupuncture, which involves placing thin needles in various strategic parts of the body depending on the condition being treated. When done by a licensed acupuncturist, the treatment is safe and has little to no pain.

See Acupuncture: An Ancient Treatment for a Current Problem

  • Massage therapy. This treatment can be combined with others, such as physical therapy or manual manipulation. A massage can reduce pain by soothing muscle tension and spasms, as well as increasing blood flow.

See Massage Chairs for Pain Relief

  • Radiofrequency neurotomy. This procedure targets specific nerves with heat to create a lesion that prevents the facet joint from sending pain signals to the brain. 

See Radiofrequency Neurotomy for Facet and Sacroiliac Joint Pain

The above does not cover every possible treatment available for whiplash.

In addition to the above treatments, anything a person can do to lead a healthy lifestyle will generally be beneficial for neck pain. Some ideas can include healthy eating, getting enough rest (with an ergonomic pillow), good posture, not smoking, and staying active without causing further neck pain.

See Treatment for Neck Pain


A whiplash injury causing chronic pain and disability is the most misunderstood injury ordinary people face when suffered.  It can exist without radiological evidence and much scepticism from experts and lay people.  Going to your GP regularly to manage your treatment and trying out different options, while staying active, will likely lead to a better outcome.  Don’t suffer in silence, call Salerno Law today 07 5575 8011.

The info graphics were kindly supplied by the wonderful Inez Tolley, who managed to fix a dodgy shoulder of mine in quick time.

Inez Tolley

Musculoskeletal Therapist (MST)

A: Suite 25, 2190 Gold Coast Highway, Miami, QLD 4220

P: 0416838637

W: www.momentummuscletherapy.com.au

Written by Peter Matus