Whiplash: What is it and what causes it?

Whiplash is the condition associated with rapid acceleration/deceleration of the neck. It usually occurs as a result of a motor vehicle accident, but can also occur in sports such as rugby, boxing, snow boarding or skiing (among others). The rapid movement generally causes hyperextension of the neck, followed by a rapid recoil into flexion.

Whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) is used to describe the injury and the trauma on the tissues of the cervical spine. (Whiplash-associated disorders, 2013) It involves the tendons, muscles and ligaments of the neck. (Health Direct, 2017)


Symptoms of whiplash:

There are a range of symptoms that may present following a whiplash injury. It can often take 6 to 12 hours before the symptoms become evident. In some cases, the symptoms may be delayed by 48hrs. (Delfini, 1999)

Headache (sub-occipital) and/or neck pain that is constant in nature or brought about by movement. (Ferrari, 2005). According to Health Direct, the following symptoms of whiplash are:

  • neck pain and stiffness
  • swelling and tenderness in the neck
  • temporary loss of movement, or reduced movement, in the neck
  • headaches
  • muscle spasms
  • pain in the shoulders or arms.

Whiplash can also cause:

  • lower back pain
  • pins and needles, numbness or pain in the arms and hands
  • dizziness
  • tiredness and irritability
  • difficulties swallowing
  • blurred vision
  • memory problems
  • vertigo (a feeling you are moving or spinning)
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears).



Initial management/treatment of whiplash include icing, rest, pain killers and anti-inflammatories.

As in most cases, a multimodal reproach including manual therapy, exercise prescription and postural advice are seen to be beneficial in the treatment of whiplash. (Binder, 2008)

Surgical intervention is not required for whiplash. In severe cases, steroid injections or surgery may be required, but this is only if trauma to the tissues extends beyond what normally occurs in whiplash.



Recovery from whiplash is different from person to person. Due to the range of structures that can be injured in a whiplash injury, the recovery time is quite varied. Some cases may resolve in a few days, while others may take weeks or months to resolve. Depending on the nature of the injury, the upper back and arms may also be affected. (Laura J. Martin, 2018)


More information:



The osteo collective logo


Binder, A. I. (2008). Neck pain. BMJ Clinical Evidence, 1103.

Delfini, R. (1999). Delayed post-traumatic cervical instability. Surg Neurol, 588-595.

Ferrari, R. (2005). A re-examination of the whiplash associated disorders (WAD) as a systemic illness. Ann Rheum Dis, 1337-1342.

Health Direct. (2017, November). Whiplash. Retrieved from Health Direct: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/whiplash

Laura J. Martin, M. (2018, July 8). Neck Strain and Whiplash. Retrieved from WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/back-pain/neck-strain-whiplash#1

Whiplash-associated disorders. (2013). In L. Ombregt, A System of Orthopaedic Medicine. Elsevier.