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Whiplash and neck strain: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment

Whiplash is a relatively common injury after a car accident where damage is caused to the soft tissues in the neck when the head is forcefully thrown forwards, backwards or sideways. This impact causes extreme flexing of the neck, which then whips back in the opposite direction. This type of neck strain may also come from a blow to the head whilst playing sport, or from an assault. Because your neck area, also known as the cervical spine, is designed to be flexible, it is less protected than the rest of your spine. This makes it more vulnerable to being hurt.

Whiplash causes

About three quarters of insurance injury claims after car accidents involve whiplash injuries. However, the Government believes the number of claims is 'unacceptably high' and is working with the insurance industry to clamp down on exaggerated or fraudulent claims.

Whiplash usually happens during collisions that feature a sudden side, rear or head-on impact. If you are wearing a seatbelt, the jolt causes your head and upper body to be flung one way. Then, as the belt braces you, your head rebounds the other way. This over-extension and recoil causes damage to ligaments and tendons in the neck. Other causes of this type of whiplash injury and neck strain include:

  • Falls that cause a sudden jolt such as falling down stairs, or a bike collision
  • A sudden blow to the head during sports like boxing, rugby or judo
  • Being hit on the head by a heavy object.

Whiplash symptoms

Initially, it's possible you may have no obvious symptoms. With whiplash and neck strain, symptoms can take several hours to emerge. They are often worse the day after the injury and may get progressively worse over the next few days. Symptoms may include:

Some of these symptoms may suggest there is damage to the vital structures in your neck, such as your airway, nerves, or cervical discs. Seek immediate medical help if you have:

You may need to be examined by an orthopaedic specialist.

Whiplash diagnosis

If you think you have whiplash, seek medical advice. Your doctor will examine your neck to check your range of movement and assess how much damage may have been caused to the ligaments, muscles and discs. It's not routine, but you may have a cervical spine CT scan or MRI scan, or X-rays, to rule out more serious injuries, such as:

  • A fracture of one of the bones in your neck or back
  • Compression of the spinal cord
  • Head injury
  • Nerve injury.


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