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Whiplash: Symptoms, Causes, and Effective Physical Therapy Treatments

Whiplash is a non-medical term describing a range of head and neck injuries resulting from an acceleration-deceleration mechanism of energy transfer to the neck.  Whiplash presents as a complaint of neck pain, stiffness or tenderness, and decreased range of motion.  This condition is most often associated with car accidents and specifically rear-end collisions, although any forceful blow to the head or body can cause whiplash


Symptoms Of Whiplash:

Not everyone who has whiplash is aware of their condition, if you have been in a whiplash related accident then you may initially feel okay. In response to the shock, your body will have produced adrenaline and other hormones to protect the area and delay the onset of pain.

If you have whiplash, you may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Neck and back pain and aching
  • Neck stiffness and decreased range of motion
  • Shoulder pain and stiffness
  • Headaches (most commonly at the base of the skull radiating towards the forehead)
  • Jaw pain
  • Arm pain and weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Sensory disturbances, such as pins and needles

Whiplash pain can be sharp or dull and may worsen with certain movements and postures. Patients may have restricted movement of their neck or feel that their head is heavy and difficult or painful to lift, off of a pillow for example 

Causes of Whiplash?

While car collisions are the most common cause of whiplash, there are a number of other activities and accidents with a strong enough impact to cause whiplash:

  • Automobile accidents
  • The direct impact of a large or heavy object on the head
  • Roller-coasters and amusement park rides
  • Contact sports (hockey, rugby, boxing, karate, football)
  • Child abuse (shaking a child/baby; hitting a child/baby)
  • A horse-back riding or cycling accident
  • Any fall which causes the head to jolt backward suddenly

How can physiotherapy help whiplash?

Physical therapy includes both passive and active treatments. Passive treatments help to relax you and your body. They’re called passive because you don’t have to actively participate. Most likely, you’re experiencing acute pain because of whiplash, so you’ll probably start with passive treatments as your body heals and/or adjusts to the pain. But the goal of physical therapy is to get into active treatments. These are therapeutic exercises that strengthen your body so that your spine has better support.

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Physiotherapy passive treatments for whiplash include:

Deep Tissue Massage: This technique targets muscle tension that can develop as a result of whiplash. The therapist uses direct pressure and friction to try to release the tension in your soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, muscles). This should help them heal faster.


Hot and Cold Therapies: 

When you first injure yourself either in a car accident or in another trauma-inducing event you can use this hot and cold therapy technique at home. Use ice first to bring down the inflammation, and after the first 24 to 48 hours, you can switch between ice and heat. The heat will help relax tense muscles, and it will increase circulation to the injured area. Increased circulation promotes faster healing. As a reminder, never put ice or heat directly on your skin wrap it in a towel.

By using heat, the physical therapist seeks to get more blood to the target area because increased blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to that area. Blood is also needed to remove waste byproducts created by muscle spasms, and it also helps to heal. Cold therapy slows circulation, helping to reduce inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain. Your physical therapist will alternate between hot and cold therapies.

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Ultrasound: By increasing blood circulation, an ultrasound helps reduce muscle spasms, cramping, swelling, stiffness, and pain. It does this by sending sound waves deep into your muscle tissues, creating a gentle heat that enhances circulation and healing.


Physical Therapy Active Treatments for Whiplash:

In the active part of physical therapy, your therapist will teach you various exercises to work on your strength and range of motion (how easily your joints move). Your physical therapy program is individualized, taking into consideration your health and history. Your exercises may not be suitable for another person with whiplash and neck pain.

Whiplash: Symptoms, Causes, and Effective Physical Therapy Treatments.


Also, you will learn how to correct your posture and incorporate ergonomic principles into your daily activities. Even after you recover from whiplash, this posture work should help you because you’ll be able to prevent other forms of neck pain that develop from daily living.


Conclusively, the overall goal of physical therapy for whiplash patients is to help increase blood circulation, promote healing of the neck tissues, and reduce muscle spasms. 

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