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What is whiplash?

What causes whiplash?
Whiplash most commonly occurs in car crashes as result of sudden deceleration. 

Whiplash occurs when the soft tissue in the spine is stretched and strained after the body is thrown in a sudden, forceful jerk. The injury most commonly occurs in car crashes involving sudden deceleration, but the injury can also occur in other strenuous physical activities such as diving.

What does whiplash feel like?
The most frequent complaints are headaches and stiffness in the neck and the back of the head. These symptoms appear within the first couple of days after the accident and usually pass after a few days to a few weeks.

Is there anything the patient can do about whiplash injury?
Professional help should be requested as soon as possible. This ideally should be via your GP. In the first 24 hours after the injury, an ice bag applied to the neck will help to relieve inflammation. Bags of frozen peas make particularly good ice packs because they mould to the body.

An ice bag should first be wrapped in a towel or cloth to avoid direct contact between the skin and the ice. The patient should lie in bed with their head resting on the ice bag for 20 minutes at a time, with the head also supported by a pillow.

If normal painkillers such as paracetamol do not help, consult your GP. It is also beneficial for an injured party to undergo physiotherapy in order to alleviate symptoms and expedite recovery.

How does a doctor diagnose whiplash?
Usually the diagnosis is made on the basis of the background of the injury and the patient's description of symptoms. Whiplash cannot be seen on an MRI scan, CT scan or X-ray, although an X-ray is taken if there is a suspicion of fracture or dislocation of the cervical spine.

Exercise
Research has shown that whiplash patients who rest for several weeks and wear a soft collar actually recover more slowly than those who try to follow a normal routine.

Research further shows that patients who attend a short course of physiotherapy will recover more efficiently and are less likely to encounter further complications.

Outlook
The risk of sustained after-effects is very small and the chances for complete recovery are good. However, whiplash is still a strain injury and, as with other strain injuries, it is not unusual for the pain to last for a couple of months.

How is whiplash treated?
If there is no suspicion of a fracture or dislocation, the patient should begin exercising and pursuing normal activities as soon as possible. In some cases it may be necessary to supplement an exercise programme with painkillers.

Further advice on exercise and recovery can be sought from a physiotherapist or chiropractor.