Common Whiplash Questions

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QuestionsWhat is whiplash?
Whiplash, although not technically a medical term, is very real and can be very painful. We call it whiplash because, in an accident, your neck really can whip back and forth—first backward (hyperextension) and then forward (hyperflexion). Doctors call whiplash a neck sprain or strain. Whiplash is an injury to the soft tissues of your neck and upper back that occurs when your muscles and ligaments get over-stretched from the force of an accident.

What causes whiplash?
The most common cause of whiplash is car accidents. However, you can also get whiplash from a sports injury or a fall. It's also possible to get whiplash when you're punched or shaken.

What are some non-surgical ways to deal with whiplash?
Time is one of the best non-surgical treatment options for whiplash. Most cases of whiplash heal by themselves in several weeks to a few months. As you heal, your doctor may also suggest: wearing a cervical collar, cervical traction, chiropractic adjustment, physical therapy, and pain medication.

Will I need surgery?
Patients with whiplash very, very rarely require surgery. If, however, you've been through extensive non-surgical treatments and you still have pain, you may consider surgery. There are several types of surgery used for whiplash, including:

Corpectomy: Sometimes whiplash causes the spinal canal to narrow because of how the soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, and tendons) and bones moved during the initial injury. By removing part of the vertebra and the intervertebral disc with a corpectomy, the surgeon is trying to make more room in your spinal canal.

Discectomy: The surgeon will remove part of the intervertebral disc, which could be pressing on your spinal cord or other nerves and causing pain. Sometimes, the surgeon will need to perform a spinal fusion at the same time as the discectomy. The fusion aims to permanently stabilize that area of your spine, but not everyone who has a discectomy will need a fusion.

Foraminotomy: As with a corpectomy, a surgeon uses a foraminotomy to make more room for your nerves that may have gotten compressed and pinched during the injury. In this procedure, the foramina (the area where the nerve roots exit the spinal canal) is removed to increase the size of the nerve pathway.

Updated on: 08/11/15
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Causes of Whiplash
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD.
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Causes of Whiplash

In addition to car accidents, whiplash can also be caused by sporting activities, falls, roller coasters, or from being punched or shaken.
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