How Can I Relieve Neck Pain Caused by Whiplash?

Question: My car was rear-ended at a stop sign last week. Since then, my neck hurts, feels stiff, and I have upper back pain. My wife says it is whiplash and I should see a doctor. Anything I can do to speed up my recovery? Should I see my doctor? How long will my pain last?
—Los Angeles, CA
man holding his neck with pain following a car accidentAnswer: Your symptoms are typical of a whiplash injury caused by a car accident. Whiplash is cervical spine strain caused when the head and neck are thrust quickly forward and backward. To understand how whiplash can cause neck pain, you need to recognize the head, which weighs 8-13 pounds, is supported and moved by the neck. Therefore, it is easy to understand how soft neck muscles and ligaments are stretched during a whiplash accident!

The severity of whiplash depends on the force of the impact, the way you were seated in your car, and if you were properly restrained using a shoulder and seat belt. For example, if your head was turned, your neck injury may be more painful.

Whiplash Home Treatment Tips
1. Although your neck injury happened last week, you might try ice and heat. Ice helps to reduce swollen overstretched muscles and ligaments. Heat increases circulation and eases tight stiff muscles. 

  • Ice: Apply an ice pack for 15 minutes as often as once each hour.
  • Heat: Apply heat (moist is best!) for 15 minutes every 2 or 3 hours.
  • Skin Safety:
    Never sleep with an ice or heat pack!
    Wrap ice or heat in a towel to protect your skin.
    Discard punctured store-bought ice or heat products.

2. If your doctor agrees, try an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. There are many such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen (Aleve).

3. Move your neck gently to help prevent further stiffness.

4. If you work at a computer or desk, take frequent breaks to relax your neck muscles.

5. Avoid cradling the telephone between your head and shoulder.

6. Avoid carrying heavy packages, especially things such as a pocket book or backpack slung over only one shoulder.

Check-In with Your Doctor
Neck pain is common either immediately following or several days after a whiplash accident. Other symptoms may develop too. Fortunately, most symptoms go away in 2 to 4 weeks. If your symptoms worsen, or you develop headache, dizziness, blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, arm or hand numbness, check-in with your family doctor or chiropractor. If necessary, you will be referred to a spine specialist.

Your doctor or chiropractor will perform a physical and neurological examination, and obtain a neck X-ray. After s/he makes a diagnosis, treatment is coordinated to get you on the road to recovery! Treatment may include prescription pain medication, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, a cervical collar, massage and physical therapy.

Other symptoms associated with whiplash or neck strain include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Hoarse voice
  • Upper back, shoulder, and/ or arm pain
  • Back pain
  • Abnormal sensations such as numbness, burning or prickling
  • Fatigue and sleep problems

Keep in Mind
Most people with whiplash improve quickly within a matter of weeks. If you have concerns, we urge you to talk to your doctor.

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