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Causes of Whiplash

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Most simply described, whiplash is caused by a motion or force that makes your neck move beyond its normal range of motion. As you can learn in the Anatomy of Whiplash article, your neck, or cervical spine, has an incredible range of motion. It's the most moveable part of your spine, but still, whiplash can cause the neck to go beyond its normal range.

There's one major cause of whiplash that most everyone thinks of immediately: car accidents. Even speeds as low as 15 mph can produce enough energy to cause whiplash—whether or not you are wearing a seatbelt. (However, if you are not properly restrained with your seatbelt, your head may strike the steering wheel or windshield, causing a concussion in addition to whiplash. You should definitely always wear your seatbelt.)

An 8 mph car collision produces two times the force of gravity (or a 2-G) deceleration of the car, and a 5-G deceleration of the head. This unnatural and forceful movement affects the muscles and ligaments in the neck, stretching and potentially tearing them. The discs between the vertebrae can bulge, tear, or rupture, and vertebrae can be forced out of their normal position, reducing your range of motion. The spinal cord and nerve roots can get stretched, irritated, and "choked."

 

hyperextension
Hyperextension

 

 

hyperflexion
Hyperflexion

 

Whiplash can also be caused by sporting activities, falls, roller coasters, or from being punched or shaken.

Aging also makes us more susceptible to whiplash. Older people, and those who already have neck problems such as arthritis, may experience more serious whiplash than a younger person. As people get older, their movement is more limited, their muscles lose flexibility and strength, and their discs and ligaments are not as elastic (stretchy). So, when their neck whips back and forth, it has more potential for damage.

Updated on: 11/30/12
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD.
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Exams and Tests for Whiplash

Even if you just have minor neck pain after an injury causing whiplash, you should see your doctor or a spine specialist. He or she will determine the extent of your injury through several exams and tests.
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