Whiplash is most commonly caused by car accidents that result in a sudden, exaggerated thrust of the head backwards, forwards or sometimes sideways. There may be no visible bruises from this type of injury but the abnormal forces applied to the tissues of the neck and spine can have prolonged effects. This most commonly involves injury to soft tissues, such as neck muscles and spinal ligaments, however it can also involve injury to the discs, vertebrae and even the blood vessels, nerves and spinal cord.
It is important to seek prompt medical advice and assessment if you experience
- Numbness, tingling or pain in the arms, legs, hands or feet
- Numbness, tingling or pain in the hands or feet
- Altered vision
If a mild ache or pain is felt immediately in the neck or shoulders, then it is likely there has been some over-strain or micro-tearing within the muscles.
If at the time of the accident you felt fine but the next day you woke with pain and stiffness in the neck, then you are more likely to have damaged ligaments, discs or sustained bruising to the bone.
Sometimes symptoms take a week or two to reach their peak, with the area becoming progressively stiffer. This often indicates healing taking place in the soft tissues; a time when scar tissue is being laid down. If symptoms do not settle within 4 –6 weeks, there could be excessive scar tissue or fibrosis of the soft tissue that will need rehabilitation with exercise and manipulation from a qualified therapist experienced in treating whiplash victims.
In terms of self-management for whiplash, the best advice during the first few days is to rest and remain as comfortable as possible without trying to stretch the injured area because this could cause further damage and aggravate any muscle spasm. After a week or two, if the acute pain starts to settle and once any muscle spasm has calmed down, heat packs and gentle stretches should help relax the tissues and facilitate healing. Ensure stretches are performed very slowly and held for at least 10 seconds, with no bouncing or tugging; less than 10 seconds could mean that the muscles tighten rather than relax. If you still experience problems after 3-4 weeks, particularly if you feel muscular tension at the top of the shoulders with a vague radiation of pain into the neck and head, be careful of having a massage from someone inexperienced with treating whiplash. Gentle styles of massage probably won’t be deep enough to soften scar tissue and relax tight portions of muscle. Equally, vigorous or fast paced styles of massage will tend to aggravate the nerve endings within the injured muscle and make the muscle tighter or send it into spasm. Slow, firm, short massage strokes that are held for around 10 seconds will usually be best. You could try some self-acupressure techniques or get a partner or friend to try it. By placing your hand on the opposite shoulder, around the trapezius muscle at the top of the shoulder blade, first feel for tight knots or bands of muscle that either reduce or increase any pressure in the head or neck as you press them. If you find these trigger spots slowly apply firm, sustained pressure for between 90 and 180 seconds, keeping the pressure static without any style of massage movement. If a friend or partner is applying the pressure they could use their elbow, or if you are doing this yourself you could use the crooked handle of an old fashioned walking stick or other products that are specifically designed for this task. This procedure will often make you feel sore at the time and may feel as though it is aggravating referred symptoms to the head and neck as the pressure is applied, however it is important to sustain this pressure. After approximately 60 seconds the pressure should feel as though it is easing. Once the pressure has stopped easing, or after 3 minutes, slowly release the pressure. The next day the area is likely to feel tender and bruised, which could last for a few days, but once this has resolved some relief in symptoms should be noticeable. The whole procedure can be repeated once any bruising from the first acupressure session has recovered, which usually equates to once or twice per week.
If symptoms persist for 6 weeks or more, it would be wise to consult your doctor or therapist in order to seek treatment. The longer one puts off having treatment, the more chronic it is likely to become and the harder it will be to resolve. In most cases it would be wise to consult your doctor or therapist much sooner, like within the first week or two after whiplash occurring.