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Exams and Tests for Whiplash

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Whiplash is a serious injury, but you may not have symptoms right away. For that reason, if you've been in an accident and think you may have whiplash, make an appointment to see your doctor or spine specialist. (If you don't already have a spine specialist, you can find one using our Find a Professional in Your Area feature.)

Even if you just have minor neck pain, it's important to be examined by a doctor so that he/she can determine the extent of your whiplash injury. During your appointment, the doctor will ask you questions about your injury and general health. He/she will also do some general diagnostic exams and tests. All this is to determine what parts of your neck were injured in the accident. Once your doctor knows that, he/she can develop a treatment plan for you—a way to manage your pain and other symptoms and to help you recover.

Typical Diagnostic Questions

  • When did the pain start?
  • How did you injure your neck? (Car accident? Sports?)
  • What have you done for your neck pain?
  • Does the pain radiate or travel to other parts of your body? For example, are you having pains in your arms?
  • Does anything lessen the pain or make it worse?

Your spine specialist will also perform physical and neurological exams. In the physical exam, your doctor will observe your posture, range of motion, and physical condition, noting any movement that causes you pain. Your doctor will feel your spine, note its curvature and alignment, and feel for muscle spasm. He or she will also check your shoulder area. During the neurological exam, your spine specialist will test your reflexes, muscle strength, other nerve changes, and pain spread. He/she is looking for possible nerve damages because of the whiplash.

Although whiplash usually only causes damage to the soft tissues of the neck, your spine specialist may take x-rays for reference in case of delayed symptoms—and to rule out other spinal problems or injuries like bone fractures.

If it's possible you have a herniated disc (injured and bulging out) or a significant muscle or ligament injury, your doctor may order a Computerized Axial Tomography scan (a CT or CAT scan) or a Magnetic Resonance Imaging test (an MRI). CT scans and MRIs make it easier to see the soft tissues and any possible injury to those soft tissues.

Note: Even if your car doesn't seem to be damaged after an accident, you may be injured because of whiplash. Whether or not you show immediate symptoms, you should be thoroughly examined by a spine specialist.

Updated on: 11/13/12
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD.
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