Sudden Whipping of the Head and Neck Can Cause Spine Injury
In this video animation, you will learn about whiplash, a neck injury commonly sustained in car accidents.
Whiplash affects the vertebrae in the top portion of the spine—your neck, which is also called the cervical spine. These vertebrae help to support and stabilize your head and neck. They are surrounded by muscles, ligaments, and tendons which help you twist, turn, and lean your head from side to side.
Whiplash occurs when a force causes your head to whip backward (called hyperextension) and then forward (hyperflexion) in a swift, sharp movement. In the illustrations below, you can see what hyperextension (top) and hyperflexion (bottom) can do to the structures in your spine.
Car crashes are one of the most common causes of the injury; in fact, whiplash is the most common type of injury sustained in car accidents.1 If you are riding in a car that is rear-ended, the sudden impact can cause your neck to snap back and forth in a rapid motion, potentially leading to whiplash.
It is important to always wear your seatbelt when riding in a car; while the belt does not automatically protect you from whiplash, it can protect you from additional injuries, such as hitting your head on the steering wheel.
Besides car accidents, there are other ways to get whiplash. The injury can occur as a result of falls, sports injuries, or any activities that cause you to shake around violently (such as riding on a roller coaster). Whiplash is also commonly associated with shaken baby syndrome. For more information on the causes and risk factors for whiplash, read our Causes of Whiplash article.
Whiplash injuries vary in their severity; some people may experience pain that heals over the course of a few weeks, with little or no treatment. In other cases, the injury may cause damage to the facet joints in the neck, or it may cause tears in surrounding ligaments, muscles, or tendons. You may find that pain extends from your neck into an arm or hand.
Even if you do not feel pain, you should visit a doctor following a car accident. Whiplash pain can begin immediately after an accident, or it can take several days (even months) for you to begin experiencing symptoms.
Just as the severity of whiplash can vary, there are a variety of treatment options available for whiplash. Your doctor may recommend a neck brace, physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or muscle relaxants. Surgery is usually only recommended for whiplash in extreme cases.