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What is Whiplash?

Cait O’ Doherty, our chartered physiotherapist from our Galway clinic discusses Whiplash from its causes to how to treat the problem

Whiplash is a non-medical term describing a range of injuries to the neck caused by or related to a sudden distortion of the neck, it usually involves injury to the soft tissues of the neck (specifically ligaments, tendons, and muscles).

It is caused by an abnormal motion or force applied to the neck that causes the neck to move outside its usual range of motion. It is usually caused by a flexion-extension motion of the neck or “Cervical acceleration-deceleration” (CAD) describes the mechanism of the injury that pulls and strains the neck muscles and ligaments.

Whiplash injury is the most common neck injury resulting from car accidents and affects approximately 1 million people a year. While being rear ended in a car accident is the leading cause of whiplash injury, the neck can also be injured in contact sports. Symptoms may take a day or two to develop, so being pain free at the time of an accident is no guarantee that the neck hasn't been injured. Symptoms of a neck injury include, pain, stiffness, headache, and back pain.

Symptoms of Whiplash

The symptoms of whiplash generally include some degree of neck pain and muscle stiffness. Depending on the severity of the injury, signs and symptoms may also include:

  • Tenderness along the back of the neck and shoulders

  • Neck swelling

  • Muscle spasms in the posterior cervical spine (back of the neck), anterior cervical spine (front of the neck), or in the Trapezius muscles (back of the shoulders)

  • Difficulty flexing, extending, or rotating the head

  • Headache, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and/or fatigue

  • Jaw tightness or difficulty chewing

  • Severe cases of whiplash may also cause vision disturbance, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and other signs of nerve irritation

Treatment of Whiplash

First and foremost see your Doctor. They will prescribe suitable pain and anti-inflammatory medication. They will assess you and see if further investigations are required. Once they are happy that there is no severe bony or neurological damage they will probably suggest seeing a Chartered Physiotherapist.



It is found that active interventions, such as neck exercises and keeping the neck mobile, are better than inactive interventions, such as resting the neck and keeping it still by using a neck brace or collar.

Even though you may experience a considerable amount of pain, keeping your neck mobile from an early stage will help to improve its functionality and speed up your recovery.

Resting your neck and keeping it still is likely to prolong your symptoms and delay your recovery. Your neck may be sore when you movement , but this is normal due to the injured tissues and it is important to note that moving it will  not cause further damage.

Physiotherapy uses a variety of physical methods, such as massage, manipulation and other techniques to promote healing and well being. It can often help to restore a person’s range of movement following an injury such as whiplash.

As well as helping to relieve pain and stiffness in your neck using massage and manipulation, your physiotherapist will also be able to advise you about neck strengthening exercises that you can do at home. This will help to facilitate your return to normal movement patterns.


Heat and ice are the two most common types of passive, non-invasive, and non-addictive therapies. Use an ice pack on your neck for the first 24-48 hours. Ice helps limit the inflammation response and reduces neck pain.

Use a hot pack on your neck after 48 hours. This is important because heat reduces muscle tension and facilitates nutrition to damaged tissue by increasing local circulation. Continue to use heat on your neck along with anti-inflammatory medication. Expect to do this for several weeks. Heat and cold can be used alternatively and are often used as a prelude to exercise therapy


The outlook for whiplash will vary depending on how severely the neck has been sprained.

The recovery time may take a few weeks if the neck ligaments and tendons are only slightly damaged. However, in severe cases, whiplash and whiplash-associated injuries can last for several months or even years. Seeking advice from your local Chartered Physiotherapist is the best way to determine that time frame you are likely to require to recover from your injuries.

If you are suffering with whiplash or indeed some kind of neck pain please contact us to make an appointment so we can help you begin recovery from Whiplash.

Today’s author Cait O Doherty works in our clinic in Galway. Cait O’Doherty specialises in musculoskeletal injuriessports injuriessports and deep tissue massagetrigger pointing , post op rehab, neurological rehab, care of the elderly, respiratory and paediatrics.

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