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Physical Therapy for Whiplash

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Physical therapy is an effective treatment option for whiplash, especially when combined with other treatments, such as bracing and medications. In whiplash, the soft tissues in your neck are damaged, so a physical therapist can work with you to restore proper function and movement of those tissues.

Physical therapy includes both passive and active treatments. Passive treatments help to relax you and your body. They're called passive because you don't have to actively participate. Most likely, you're experiencing acute pain because of whiplash, so you'll probably start with passive treatments as your body heals and/or adjusts to the pain. But the goal of physical therapy is to get into active treatments. These are therapeutic exercises that strengthen your body so that your spine has better support.

Passive Treatments for Whiplash

  • Deep Tissue Massage: This technique targets muscle tension that can develop as a result of whiplash. The therapist uses direct pressure and friction to try to release the tension in your soft tissues (ligaments, tendons, muscles). This should help them heal faster.
  • Hot and Cold Therapies: By using heat, the physical therapist seeks to get more blood to the target area because an increased blood flow brings more oxygen and nutrients to that area. Blood is also needed to remove waste byproducts created by muscle spasms, and it also helps healing.

    Cold therapy slows circulation, helping to reduce inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain. Your physical therapist will alternate between hot and cold therapies.

    (When you first injure yourself—either in a car accident or in another trauma-inducing event—you can use this hot and cold therapy technique at home. Use ice first to bring down the inflammation, and after the first 24 to 48 hours, you can switch between ice and heat. The heat will help relax tense muscles, and it will increase circulation to the injured area. Increased circulation promotes faster healing. As a reminder, never put ice or heat directly on your skin—wrap it in a towel, for example.)
  • Ultrasound: By increasing blood circulation, an ultrasound helps reduce muscle spasms, cramping, swelling, stiffness, and pain. It does this by sending sound waves deep into your muscle tissues, creating a gentle heat that enhances circulation and healing.

Active Treatments for Whiplash
In the active part of physical therapy, your therapist will teach you various exercises to work on your strength and range of motion (how easily your joints move). Your physical therapy program is individualized, taking into consideration your health and history. Your exercises may not be suitable for another person with whiplash and neck pain.

If needed, you will learn how to correct your posture and incorporate ergonomic principles into your daily activities. Even after you recover from whiplash, this posture work should help you because you'll be able to prevent other forms of neck pain that develop from daily living.

Overall, the goal of physical therapy for whiplash patients is to help reduce muscle spasms, increase blood circulation, and promote healing of the neck tissues.

Updated on: 12/10/09
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD.
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