Exams and Tests for Whiplash

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Whiplash can be a serious injury and you may not experience symptoms right away. Symptoms may be mild at first and gradually worsen. Furthermore, symptoms can sometimes develop days, weeks, or even months after the initial injury! The main symptom of whiplash is neck or upper back pain. You may also experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Shoulder and/or arm pain
  • Tenderness and/or stiffness
  • Numbness and/or tingling
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision

Woman with Neck PainConsider seeing your doctor even if whiplash pain is mild ...
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 pain radiate or travel to other parts of your body?
  • For example, are you having pains in your arms?
  • What decreases your neck and/or upper body pain?
  • What increases your neck or extremity pain?

Physical and Neurological Examination
Your spine specialist will also perform physical and neurological exam. 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 injury because of the whiplash.

Radiological Examination
Although whiplash usually only causes injury to the soft tissues of the neck (eg, muscles, ligaments), 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 neurologic symptoms are acute and/or your doctor suspects a herniated disc or significant soft tissue injury, a CT scan or MRI may be performed. An MRI is especially helpful to evaluate 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: 04/17/18
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Whiplash: Neck Trauma and Treatment
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
Charleston Brain and Spine
Charleston, SC
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Whiplash: Neck Trauma and Treatment

Whiplash is a cervical spine injury known to cause severe neck pain that may radiate into the upper back and shoulders. The sudden whipping of the head and neck forward and backward injures the neck's soft tissues, such as the ligaments and muscles.
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