Cervical Whiplash

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Condition: Cervical whiplash is an injury to the neck that occurs when the head is jerked forward and back very quickly.   

Background: Whiplash can cause injuries to the bones, ligaments, muscles, tendons, and joints in the neck. 

Risk Factors: Most whiplash injuries result from auto accidents. Falls, hard hits during contact sports such as football, and diving accidents also may cause whiplash.

History and Symptoms: Patients with whiplash injuries may have neck and upper back pain. Sometimes they also have headaches, dizziness, weakness, blurred vision, and trouble concentrating and remembering things. These symptoms may occur right away, or a few days after the injury. Most patients recover quickly, but sometimes pain and other symptoms can last for a year or more. A physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician, also known as a physiatrist, can best assess how whiplash is affecting your daily activities, including how it affects your household, job, and hobbies, and how it impacts in your life, including your mood, sleep, and physical activities.

Physical Exam: A PM&R physician will check to see if you have pain in your neck and upper back, and if you can move your head and neck normally, and if these movements reproduce any other symptoms, like weakness, numbness or tingling sensation down your arms, even difficulty walking.

Diagnostic Process: X-rays may be done to make sure there is no more serious damage to the spine. Other imaging tests are usually only done if the symptoms do not go away or a more severe injury is suspected. Also, electrodiagnostic studies can be considered if symptoms persist, to evaluate for possible damage to nerves that go from your neck to your arms. The physiatrist will also evaluate how disabled you are by the pain, including your mood and capacity to function in activities of daily living, with questionnaires if necessary.

Rehab Management: The PM&R physician will focus on helping you do the things you normally do by leading an interdisciplinary team of therapists, social worker, pain management experts, and others. Rest, ice, and/or heat, along with over-the-counter pain medicines such as acetaminophen may help. Exercise may be recommended to keep the neck flexible as early as possible. If symptoms last more than 1-2 weeks, physical therapy, manual manipulation, local injections, or acupuncture may help.

Other Resources for Patients and Families:  Families can help by getting patients to take part in physical activities and rehab programs. Modifications to the motor vehicle, like seatbelts and headrest, should be considered for adequate height adjustments and prevention of new injuries.


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