How Long Does Whiplash Last?

Whiplash is one of the more common soft tissue injuries that occur as a result of car accidents or during an athlete’s career. It has been known to affect over two million American citizens in a single year.

In the case of car accidents, whiplash can come from a car accident injuries, even when the vehicles are going at relatively slow speeds or if the impact is only enough to put a dent in your bumper. It has also been known to affect people who participate in contact sports like rugby or American football, sports like diving, and even frequent rodeo athletes. Some victims of physical abuse also sustain whiplash injuries. After such accidents, getting whiplash treatment is the best option to take to prevent more complications

Injuries like whiplash can put you out of commission for some time, and anyone who has experienced it can tell you that it can be hard to wait for the doctor’s okay to get out again. So just how long should you be expected to wait? The answer is not quite simple. The duration of recovery from whiplash, however, can vary depending on your lifestyle, pre-existing health conditions, and how well you follow the treatment plan developed by your medical team.

Whiplash Causes

Whiplash happens when some form of impact to your body causes your neck to move rapidly back and forth. It does not take much force for this to happen. Anything that causes the muscles in your neck to flex and extend more than normal can result in a whiplash injury.

The soft tissues in your neck – your muscles, nerves, ligaments, spinal discs, and tendons – are what are most affected by whiplash. Injuries to this area of your body can be very painful.

Whiplash Symptoms

Most people begin experiencing symptoms of whiplash within 24 hours or less, although some research shows that there may be a condition that occurs to some people where symptoms occur even weeks or months after the initial physical impact. This condition is called late whiplash syndrome and appears to happen more frequently to women.

There are some symptoms that accompany most cases of whiplash, while some symptoms are rarer.

  • Neck stiffness: You may notice difficulty turning your head from side to side or nodding as if to say “yes.” This symptom is actually used by doctors to determine a whiplash diagnosis by measuring the level of reactivity in your trapezius muscle.
  • Neck and shoulder pain: The stiffness usually occurs alongside muscle pain affecting the neck and shoulder and sometimes radiating out towards the arm or down the back.
  • Severe headaches and jaw pain: Because of the relative position of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) in your jaw near your neck, your injury may cause severe pain in that area. That pain, in combination with the pain in your neck and shoulder, may also cause severe headaches and even migraines.
  • Dizziness: This very common symptom occurs in around 50% of all whiplash cases and can feel like vertigo or lightheadedness.
  • Tinnitus: Also known as ringing in the ears, many patients with whiplash report experiencing this at the time of impact, in the first few minutes after the incident that caused the whiplash.

Secondary Symptoms

These symptoms may lead to sleep disturbances, which can cause their own array of symptoms. In the days and weeks after your whiplash injury, you may struggle to fall asleep in the evening, or you may wake up frequently throughout the night. Due to this insomnia, you may then experience long bouts of daytime fatigue that does not seem to improve with rest. You may also experience mood swings, increased irritability or impatience, and difficulty concentrating or sustaining attention.

Whiplash Treatment

Whiplash treatment can take many forms, all of which you will decide on with your doctor and other medical professionals who are in charge of your care.

The first step is, of course, for your doctor to make a formal diagnosis. Sometimes, this can be done with a conversation and a physical exam; other times, it may require extra testing. Your doctor may order imaging for you. Imaging refers to procedures that allow medical professionals to “see” inside your body. Some examples include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans, or X-rays. However, your doctor will mainly rely on your reported symptoms, so make sure to be clear and explicit about what you are experiencing.

The first and most important thing that any doctor would suggest would be to make sure you get a lot of rest. Your body requires rest in order for it to complete the functions that help you heal. A couple of days of bed rest after the incident is best. After that, you should begin trying to return to your normal life, with some accommodations for your injury. Too much rest could cause the recovery process to go slower.

Pain Management

Most likely, the first goal of your treatment plan will revolve around managing the pain. How this is done depends on the severity of your pain and the resources you have access to.

  • Heat and cold: Using either or both heating pads and cold compresses, you can apply different temperatures to the affected areas to find some relief. You can do this for 15-20 minutes every few hours for the best results.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Painkillers that can be purchased at any local pharmacy can go a long way toward helping you manage mild pain. The best options are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or aspirin. Take these drugs according to the directions on the box; otherwise, consult your doctor.
  • Prescription medications: More moderate or severe pain may require a stronger form of painkillers. Your doctor may prescribe one to you. One common recommendation is the off-label use of antidepressants to help suppress nerve pain. You may also be prescribed a muscle relaxant to help with stiff, tense muscles. This can also be helpful for managing the effects of insomnia as a result of your whiplash injury.
  • Injections: Doctors may recommend injections of certain medications that help with pain or numb the affected area, especially so that you can comfortably participate in physical therapy.

Exercise & Physical Therapy

If you want to recover more quickly from whiplash, then exercise and physical therapy will help you get back on your feet sooner rather than later. It used to be that a common response to whiplash injuries was to put you in a soft foam collar and keep your neck immobilized. However, recent research shows that patients with whiplash recover sooner if they mobilize with appropriate exercises. Disuse of the muscles makes for a longer recovery.

Your doctor might recommend a set of preliminary exercises that can help get you moving. Your doctor may suggest that you gently do the following each day:

  • Rotate your neck from side to side in both directions
  • Tilt your head so that one ear reaches to the shoulder, and then the other
  • Tuck your chin into your chest as if to nod deeply
  • Roll your shoulders forward and backward

A physical therapist, however, will create a more thorough study for you that you will work on over a period of weeks. They will prescribe you exercises based on your individual needs, as well as the progress you make during physical therapy sessions. You can also explore other non-invasive procedures like getting chiropractic treatment after a car accident.

Whiplash Complications

Whiplash is almost never fatal, and most patients recover in time, although only 50% of patients return fully to the condition they were in before. However, people who have previously experienced whiplash, or in fact any injury involving the neck, are more likely to experience it again.

There is also some research that suggests whiplash can have a long-term effect on your nervous system. For example, one whiplash-associated disorder is connected to deficits in your sensory processing abilities, and your brain may even physically change as a result. Some people have been discovered to have lesions along their nervous system, suggesting more serious nerve damage as a result of whiplash.

The circumstances that cause whiplash are also likely to result in concussion, a commonly co-occurring condition that involves a blow to the head and can cause damage to the skull or brain. Any time whiplash and concussion occur concurrently, you are more vulnerable to potential disturbances in the autonomic nervous system, or ANS.

Whiplash Risk Factors

Some people are more likely to develop whiplash compared to others. For example, while researchers are not sure why, women are up to two times as likely to experience this condition compared to men. Another contributing factor is age. As you grow older, your muscles become weaker, leaving them more vulnerable to pain and weakness. For this reason, people over the age of 50 are more likely to report symptoms of whiplash than people who are younger.

Whiplash Recovery

Whether your recovery lasts weeks or months depends not only on the severity of your condition but also on the choices you make after experiencing the incident that caused it.

If your doctor gives the go-ahead after a few days of rest, you should try your best to begin doing mobilization exercises to help your muscles get loose and to ensure that your recovery goes by more quickly. Take advantage of pain management methods, and if you feel that your recovery is going by more slowly than you expected, do not hesitate to reach out to your doctor for help. There may be another step you can take to help speed the process.