Most people experience a whiplash injury following a motor vehicle accident where you are either hit from behind or you rear-ended the car in front of you. However, whiplash is not just from car accidents. Any incident where a person is hit, pushed, or fallen with enough force that is unexpected can suffer whiplash pain. Here I outline the 10 most common questions I am asked about whiplash injuries and provide honest answers from my 12 years + in the physio industry.
- How long does whiplash last for?
Whiplash symptoms can last from as little as a few weeks to up to 2 years. It is not uncommon for whiplash pain to last even longer particularly for people who are more susceptible to pain such as older people and those with pre-existing injuries.
- Can whiplash be delayed?
Yes! In fact, it more often than not is delayed for between 1 -2 weeks. A lot of people cannot understand why they feel ok after their accident but develop pain in the neck and shoulders gradually in the following few weeks. The physiological impact of ‘shock’ often masks our pain initially which is what investigators put this down to. Once this phenomenon subsides, underlying injured tissue pain becomes more apparent.
- What does whiplash pain feel like?
Most people describe whiplash pain as a constant headache, pain in the neck or pain in the large muscles between the neck and shoulders (upper traps). As time passes, this pain can travel down to the mid portion of your spine and around your shoulder blades. More severe injuries might produce pain down the arms into the hands or even pain around the chest wall over the rib cage.
- Can whiplash cause pain in the legs?
This symptom can be reported if you are hit from behind particularly when your car is stationary. This mechanism can propel significant force into your lower back and upset the vertebrae and vertebral discs. This is often the cause of pain in the legs commonly referred to as ‘sciatica’ pain.
- How much impact could whiplash have on my life?
The more body parts affected by a whiplash injury the more its impact on your day to day life. The most common reported impairment I see is the loss of ability to lift and carry day to day objects. For example, carrying shopping bags. Other movements that are affected are when we need to handle objects above our head or reaching out to grab something that requires our backs to bend a little. It will become difficult for people to return to work safely particularly when their work is physical in nature.
- What should I do in the early phase if I suspect I might have a whiplash injury?
The most important thing to do early on is avoid aggravating activities. If you feel you can ‘work off’ a whiplash injury then you have another thing coming! The first point of call should be to seek medical attention, even if you don’t feel much pain after the first few days or week. Your physio or doctor will need to thoroughly assess you for potential and underling pain. This will also provide documented evidence for if you wish to make an injury claim through your car insurance – which I always recommend as a safety net in case things worsen.
- Should I use a heat pack or cold pack?
Great question! Quite often I answer this with horses for courses. With whiplash pain there is a large component of soft tissue involvement (muscle and tendon damage) and I recommend heat in the early days over the neck and shoulders. This should be applied twice daily for up to 30 minutes. If heat isn’t helping then give the cold pack a go as an alternative.
- What sort of medication can I take?
This needs to be answered by you local GP doctor to be honest. Anti-inflammatories are usually prescribed with this type of pain however your doctor needs to determine the suitability of medication that’s safe for you!
- Are there any exercises I should be doing?
There most definitely are but you need to approach this with caution. Exercises, particularly when you have a whiplash injury, need to be gentle and specific for you – and not what you might find on Google! This should be provided by your physiotherapist as they are best to advise on what exercises to do. I’ve provided my safest top 3 exercises in a separate blog article which you can find on our website.
- I’ve been to my doctor who said I should be ok in a few days. What should I do?
This situation, unfortunately, does happen. If you have explained what has happened to you to your doctor and he assesses you as being un-injured from your accident, its likely your symptoms have experienced the delayed affect. This happens as previously mentioned. Alternatively, if you are in pain for some time and your doctor feels you are physically fine then it’s time to seek another opinion. You need to do this quickly as any delay in treatment will likely prolong your injury time.