First Time User? Enroll now.
*Vaccine availability and appointments* | Visitor and mask policies | Additional COVID-19 resources.
Home > Health Library > Whiplash
Whiplash is pain and stiffness in the neck after an injury that has caused the neck to move suddenly or beyond its normal range.
It occurs when the head is suddenly forced backward or forward and is then snapped in the other direction. This kind of motion most often happens to people in a car that is hit from behind. Less commonly, it might happen in a fall, a sports injury, or if you are roughly shaken. The motion causes stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck, and it may damage the nerves. In rare cases, it may cause broken bones.
Symptoms of whiplash are pain and stiffness in the neck and sometimes in the muscles in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms. You also may have a headache, feel dizzy, and have pain in your back.
You may not have any symptoms until the day after your injury. Or your symptoms may go away but then return a few days later.
You may have a more serious injury if you have:
Your doctor will ask questions about your neck injury and past health, and he or she will carefully examine your head and neck. You may need X-rays to make sure there are no broken bones in your neck. You may also need an imaging test such as an MRI or CT scan to look for other injuries.
Most whiplash improves with home treatment. Things you can do include:
It takes up to 3 months for the neck to heal, even though most pain may be gone in less time. More severe whiplash may take longer, but it usually improves within 6 to 12 months.
After your neck pain is gone, do exercises to stretch your neck and back and make them stronger. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell you which exercises are best.
To help prevent whiplash when you drive, always wear your seat belt and adjust your headrest to the proper height.
Other Works Consulted
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Cervical strain. In JF Sarwark, ed., Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, 4th ed., pp. 929–933. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Bhagawati D, Gwilym S (2015). Neck pain with radiculopathy. BMJ Clinical Evidence. http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/systematic-review/1103/overview.html. Accessed March 1, 2016.
Current as of: March 2, 2020
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Current as of: March 2, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2020 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.