What is Whiplash?

Over three million Americans suffer whiplash injuries each year. Of those, more than 50% will end up with chronic pain related to the whiplash injury. Whiplash is a neck injury due to a forceful, rapid back and forth motion of the neck. Car accidents, sports (blows to the head or falls), and other traumas can cause whiplash. Most people complain of neck, shoulder, or jaw pain, as well as headaches. In some cases, there may even be complaints of dizziness, blurred vision, or ringing in the ears.

Why can recovering from whiplash so complex?

Although most people recover within a few weeks of the incident, others may struggle for months to years with lingering symptoms. Once all other injuries have been ruled out by the doctor with the help of imaging (x-rays, MRI, CT scans) and examination, they will prescribe a treatment plan that can include medications, physical therapy, and modalities.

Rest with a return to motion is crucial

Rest is most important for the first couple of days. Performing gentle neck and shoulder stretches along with heat and rest will allow the acute injury to heal more quickly. After the first couple of days, it is time to move. Movement is crucial to prevent complications of the initial injury. Seeing a physical therapist will help you regain motion, posture, and decrease pain. Physical Therapists can work through exercises with you to help promote healing and provide soft tissue work that can ease tightened muscles, causing pain and discomfort.

Medication can be used to promote motion

 Medications can be used to help decrease pain, inflammation, and relax muscles. Lidocaine injections can also be used to numb, especially painful areas, making it possible to receive Physical Therapy. The goal with medication is to give it for a short amount of time to help improve healing and then move away from them and into gentle activities that can restore movement, control pain, and allow you to return to normal activities.

Physical Therapy for Whiplash

For the first few weeks, the main goal is to decrease inflammation and pain, slowly restoring range of motion through gentle tissue and joint mobilization, heat and ice treatments, and sometimes using a TENS unit to help decrease pain. Gentle AROM exercises are performed during the PT session and at home to help return the patient to normal activities. If pain is severe, a cervical collar may be prescribed, but it should only be used for a limited amount of time to avoid additional muscle weakness.

The second phase of PT, once the pain and inflammation have decreased, is to then work on posture retraining, strengthening exercises, and regaining the final degrees of range of motion. This allows the patient to return to their regular activities symptom and pain-free. This phase will be longer than the first as it takes time to regain strength. Working closely with a physical therapist will optimize your outcomes.

Get Treatment Quickly

Research shows that physical therapy is an effective treatment of whiplash. PT can decrease pain, improve movement, reduce the risk of secondary problems, and shorten recovery time. Don’t let whiplash pain and symptoms become a problem years down the road, treat them quickly after an injury to prevent long term problems.

Physical Therapist at Freedom Physical Therapy Services
Molly Rittberg received her master’s degree in Physical Therapy in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to receive her doctorate from Rosalind Franklin University (North Chicago) in 2009. She has since worked in an outpatient orthopedic practice where she worked with patients of all ages, injuries and disabilities. She has a wide variety of experiences including knee, ankle, foot and shoulder injuries, post-operative conditions, spinal rehabilitation and peripheral neuropathies.