To make a long answer short: yes, possibly! There is some research that suggests that whiplash may affect people long after – even significantly long after – the incident that caused the damage in the first place. If you have been experiencing whiplash symptoms, it is best to find whiplash treatment options to prevent any further complications.
Whiplash is one of the most common soft tissue injuries that affects people in car accidents or other incidents ending in injury. It can cause chronic pain that will affect you for the rest of your life if it goes untreated. It affects over two million adults in the United States per year. However, it is not fatal, and many people do fully recover within a few months.
Your neck contains parts of your brain and spinal cord, which are protected not only by the bones that make up the spinal column or backbone, but also several muscles and other tissues. There are 7 vertebrae (bony ridges in the backbone) that protect the neck, as well as twenty muscles in the neck area to support your head and shoulders. The bones and muscles are surrounded by a mass of tissues, including tendons, ligaments, and others, whose jobs are to protect, support, and connect to each other.
Whiplash occurs when an impact on your body makes your neck move rapidly back and forth, causing damage to the muscles and tissues that support your neck and shoulders. It happens frequently as a result of car accidents but is also a frequent athletic injury. This is especially true for people who participate in some contact sports such as rugby or soccer, or sports where your head may make contact with another force, like in diving or swimming. People who participate in equestrian sports or the rodeo are also prone to whiplash. Many older adults also sustain whiplash from a bad fall.
If you have been involved in a car accident, whiplash can occur even at slow speeds. Collision-related whiplash injuries occur most often during rear-end collisions. This is because of the way that rear-end impact affects the responding movement of your body, causing your neck to hyperextend back and forth very quickly.
For most people, the symptoms of whiplash occur within a day of the event that caused the injury. However, a condition called late whiplash syndrome may affect many people. Late whiplash syndrome causes symptoms of whiplash to be delayed for days, weeks, or even months.
Researchers are still examining cases to determine why this happens, but if you begin developing any of the following symptoms, even if you cannot recall an event within the last twenty-four hours that may have caused it, discuss the possibility of late whiplash syndrome with your doctor. The symptoms of late whiplash syndrome are identical to those that affect people whose whiplash develops more quickly.
You may have whiplash if you experience any of the following:
- Stiffness in the neck that results in difficulty with turning your head from side to side or moving it up and down in a nod. Tension in the neck is an important marker of whiplash that doctors use to diagnose by measuring the tension and reactivity in the trapezius muscle.
- Neck and shoulder pain, usually in the muscles along the top and back of your shoulder that connect your neck and shoulder together. The pain may also radiate down the arm or towards the lower back.
- Severe headaches due to tension in your neck and shoulders. These headaches are very painful and often develop into migraines.
- Jaw pain because of the location of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) in your jaw, which is very close to your neck.
- Vertigo or dizziness, which occurs in half of all cases of whiplash. This could be severe to the point that standing or walking is difficult, or it may just be mild lightheadedness.
- Tinnitus, or ringing or other sounds in the ears, especially in the first few minutes after the impact.
The pain and other symptoms may affect your life in other ways as well. You may notice sleep disturbances as it becomes more uncomfortable to sleep in your normal position. This could mean having difficulty falling asleep at night, or you may wake up multiple times during the night.
Sleep deprivation combined with pain may affect your mood. Many people with whiplash report mood swings, increased irritability or feelings of sadness, and difficulty with focus and attention.
Whiplash Risk Factors
As with any medical condition, there are risk factors that could make some people more vulnerable to sustaining a whiplash injury compared to others. One such factor is gender; for reasons that researchers have not yet agreed on, women are up to twice as likely to experience whiplash. Additionally, most suspected cases of late whiplash syndrome seem to occur in women. Older people, especially over the age of 50, are also significantly more at risk for whiplash syndrome.
Treatment for Whiplash
There are a lot of options for whiplash treatment regardless of when you first begin to develop symptoms. Doctors will recommend treatment starting with the most conservative approach and then increase the rigor of your treatment according to your body’s response.
The most conservative treatment of any injury to the muscles begins with rest, heat/cold, and over-the-counter painkillers, especially once you begin suspecting symptoms. Most doctors recommend at least 48 hours of rest. It is important not to rest too much, however, as over-resting can cause the recovery process to go slower.
To help with the pain, use heating pads and cold compresses alternatively. Apply for up to twenty minutes every three hours. Make sure to never put ice directly onto the skin. Over-the-counter painkillers from any pharmacy can help manage pain. Using something like ibuprofen or aspirin will have the best results.
If recovery is still slow or painful, doctors will move on to more aggressive treatment. Among these treatments are more intense prescription medications for pain. Physical therapy and chiropractic treatment are also a helpful intervention that often yields strong positive results.
Finally, and rarely recommended, surgery may be possible. This is usually only prescribed to those patients whose injuries are very severe.