Whiplash Causes and Symptoms

Neck sprains are graded from mild - to severe.
Neck pain caused by a neck sprain may be a serious injury. Neck sprains are graded from mild - to severe. (c) Goldstein

Whiplash is a term often associated with car accidents.  Although car accidents are quite common cause, other types of experiences can be classified as whiplash as well.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that whiplash is injury to your soft tissue and is also known as either neck strain or neck sprain.  (It can be both if muscles and ligaments are affected.)

Related: Neck Sprain and Strain

Some experts define whiplash only in terms of what happens upon impact, and not in terms of any medical conditions that may result.

Either way, to find out what, if any, damage was done to your neck from a whiplash experience, you should be evaluated by a health care professional.

Meanwhile, what does happen to your neck and head during a whiplash?

Whiplash Definition

Whiplash is an injury caused by the neck and head being thrown suddenly backward then forward upon impact.  Technically speaking, your head and neck are forced first into extension and then quickly into flexion. This  impact takes the neck and head beyond their normal range of movement, and usually causes tissue damage and pain.

Causes of Whiplash

Whiplash Symptoms

Depending on a number of individual factors whiplash can damage your discs, nerve roots and, as mentioned above, your muscles and ligaments.

  You may feel symptoms immediately, or after a few days. Symptoms may include - but are not limited to the following:

  • Neck pain
  • Neck stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Nerve symptoms such as pins and needles
  • Pain in the shoulders
  • Pain between the shoulder blades
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Vision problems
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

Symptoms or Not - See A Doctor

It's easy to shrug off a car accident when you don't feel pain right away.  But a lack of symptoms does not mean your tissues have not been injured.  Even without symptoms, it is advisable to make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible after your car accident or other whiplash related experience.  Your doctor can help to determine the location and extent of the damage as well as help you develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Related:  Communicating Your Symptoms to Your Doctor

If you're wondering about what you can do to prevent a whiplash, a study done by Stemper, et. al. in 2006 at the Medical College of Wisconsin suggests that the risk of whiplash due to a rear end collision can be minimized with proper positioning of the head close to the headrest.  Driving safely and wearing your seatbelt are critical, as well.


Stemper, Brian, Ph.D., Yoganandan, Narayan, Pintar, Frank, (2006).Effect of head restraint backset on head-neck kinematics in whiplash.. Accident Analysis and Prevention. 38, 317-323.

Stemper, Brian, Ph.D., Personal Interview and Email Communication. Dec 21 and 22 2006.

Whiplash Information Page.  National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. September 19, 2012  http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/whiplash/whiplash.htm

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