Whiplash injury, also known as neck strain, is usually caused by impacts or blows that cause sudden forward or backward jerking of the head. The sudden force causes a high-intensity stretch in the tendons and muscles surrounding the neck. Tears of these tendons and muscles are also a possibility if the jerking movement was caused by a high impact blow. The whiplash injury might occur as a result of a car accident or during contact sports like rugby.
Understanding the difference between strains and sprains
A strain results from damage to the muscles/tendons (bands of tissues connecting bones to muscles) while sprains are caused by ligament (tissues connecting bones to each other) tears. However, the treatment protocol for strain and sprain is fairly similar.
Detecting Whiplash Injury/Neck strain
The following are the signs that you probably have suffered a whiplash injury:
- Immediate neck pain following the impact causing the jerking movement. In several cases the pain may start several hours or days later. The pain would occur with head movement in every direction.
- Tenderness on palpation.
- Headaches starting from the base of skull and radiating towards forehead.
- Severe discomfort and pain while looking over the shoulder.
- Decreased range of motion accompanied with tightness. The muscles would feel hard to the touch.
Red flags after Whiplash Injury
The strain can result in a concussion as well. Concussions can be fatal and require medical attention without further delay.
Medical care is required if the patient experiences the following:
- Persistent or worsening headache
- Trouble talking
- Unconsciousness or excessive sleeping
Managing Whiplash Injury
The whiplash injury usually resolves on its own with time provided there are no other associated injuries or underlying issues. The recovery time of the whiplash injury depends upon the severity and most cases recover within a few days. In some rare cases where the strain has been severe, it might take a few weeks to heal. It would serve well to remember that the recovery rate varies from individual to individual.
The following steps would assist in achieving a speedy recovery:
- Ice pack application for initial 2 to 3 days for 15 minutes every 3 to 4 hours
- Consuming pain medications or NSAIDs
- Using neck brace or a soft collar to protect the neck if recommended by the doctor. However, these braces should only be used short term as long term use weakens the muscles.
- Application of moist heat after 2 to 3 days of icing once the swelling has reduced to loosen up the tightened structures.
- Therapeutic modalities like ultrasound and massage would be helpful in healing and resolution of the muscle tightness.
- Rehabilitation can be started once the acute symptoms have resolved. The rehabilitation protocol will involve neck muscle strengthening to help functional recovery and help reduce chances of future neck strain.
Exercise Protocol to Help Faster Recovery
Consult your medical provider to ensure you are safe to start with exercises before you start this protocol.
The following exercises can help if you suffer from whiplash injury:
- Start with gentle stretching exercises and gradually increase the amount of stretch as your tolerance builds up.
- Start with static neck exercises and gradually move to dynamic neck strengthening exercises.
Avoid rushing into increasing the exercise gradation. Observe your body and pain occurrence before you resume regular activities. Resuming regular activities without complete recovery might result in chronic neck pain or permanent injury.
Signs that you are recovering from whiplash injury
- You are able to complete head and neck movements in all directions without eliciting any pain or stiffness
- You are able to look over your shoulder without causing yourself any pain and without experiencing any stiffness or restriction
Preventing Whiplash Injury
The whiplash injury caused by any accident would be unavoidable. The only thing you could do when you know you are going to suffer a high impact jerk in an accident is brace yourself for the impact in the safest way possible.
However, you can improve the odds by:
- Practicing regular strengthening exercises for the neck muscles.
- If you have a sedentary job requiring long hours of bending your head and neck, ensure you take rest breaks at regular intervals and perform neck stretching exercises.