Long-term Effects of Whiplash
Can Whiplash Lead to Osteoarthritis and Spinal Stenosis?
Question: I had severe whiplash twice when I was younger. Now, I'm 64, and I have osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis in my neck. Could these spine conditions be a result of my neck injuries from when I was a kid?
— Los Angeles, CA
Answer: Whiplash is a soft tissue neck injury that can happen when your head suddenly moves backward, then forward. Soft tissues that may be involved in a whiplash injury include muscles and ligaments. With whiplash, you may have neck pain and stiffness and tightness in your shoulders.
You didn't mention how you got whiplash when you were younger, but the most common reasons for having whiplash include getting into a car accident, a bad fall, or a sports injury.
Typically after a neck injury like whiplash, some type of imaging (eg, an x-ray) is used. If there is no evidence of any injuries to your spine but there are signs of soft tissue strain, we call this whiplash.
Whiplash can be mild or severe, but most of the time, people recover fully from whiplash—usually within a few weeks or months. For the majority of patients, whiplash is considered a self-limiting condition, which means that whiplash can heal on its own with or without medical treatment.1,3
I'm not aware of whether whiplash leads to degenerative changes later in life unless there is a true injury, such as a fracture, to the spine. Also, there have been limited studies on the long-term effects of whiplash, so there is no hard evidence that whiplash can cause osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis.
Several studies have examined a psychological connection to patients who develop ongoing consistent chronic pain from the time of the whiplash injury. However, if your pain went away when you were younger, but you have pain now, it's unlikely that the pain you currently have is related to the whiplash injuries you had as a child.
But with that said, in certain cases and when there is a true injury to the spine, whiplash can have lasting effects and may require treatment. However, we typically do not consider this a whiplash injury.
As we age, it's common for our spines to gradually develop degenerative arthritic (joint inflammation) changes. The pain that you're experiencing now from your osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis is a chronic process that's most likely not related to your whiplash injury from years ago but caused by the normal degeneration that occurs in our spines over time.2,4,5
Fortunately, all of these spine conditions—whiplash, osteoarthritis, and spinal stenosis—can benefit from certain treatments, including physical therapy. A physical therapist can teach you gentle neck exercises to help strengthen your neck muscles and reduce your pain and other symptoms.