Is Whiplash causing my neck or back pain?

Is Whiplash causing my neck or back pain?

Whiplash Overview

Whenever the term whiplash comes up, we are talking about an injury to the cervical spine. The cervical spine, or the neck, is the most flexible section of vertebrae in the spine, allowing us to turn our head up, down, side-to-side, and so on. It helps us to know what’s going on around us by turning our eyes and ears in the direction of sights and sounds. Unfortunately, because the neck does have so much mobility, it is also more susceptible to injury, including whiplash.

Whiplash, also referred to as neck sprain or strain depending upon the severity of the injury, is the nonmedical term used for a category of sudden movement neck injuries. Whiplash occurs when the neck is quickly jerked in an uncontrolled manner, causing strain to the muscles, ligaments, and nerves that surround our cervical spine. For example, think of the quick jerking of the neck in a rear-end collision car accident.

Although sometimes it is thought that whiplash occurs only with jerky head movements to the front and back, side-to-side movements can also cause whiplash. This rapid movement can result in minor to major damage to the structures in our neck. Neck strain involves the tearing or damage of muscles that connect to the bones of the cervical spine, whereas neck sprain is the result of damage to ligaments that hold the vertebrae together. Although technically strain and sprain are categorically different, signs and symptoms are often similar.

While we most often associate car crashes with whiplash, this is not the only circumstance that can lead to whiplash. Any incident in which the head and neck move rapidly in any direction can lead to this uncomfortable and troubling condition. Events such as falls, sports injuries like football tackles and skiing accidents, bungee jumping, head-banging, and roller coasters are just some of the ways whiplash can occur. Regardless of how the damage occurs, however, the signs and symptoms can be quite troubling and uncomfortable. For neck injuries that don’t heal within 2-3 days, it is recommended that you bring your injury to the attention of a physician who can rule out more serious forms of damage to the spine.


Symptoms of Whiplash

The symptoms of whiplash can vary widely, and can depend upon the severity of the injury. Symptoms may show up immediately following the event, or can turn up hours, days, or even weeks after the triggering event occurs. If you have experienced anything that caused your head or neck to jerk uncontrollably back and forth, keep a watchful eye out for the following symptoms:

  • Pain in the neck, shoulders and/or upper back that may increase with movement
  • Stiffness in the neck or shoulders that may couple with limited range of mobility
  • Tingling sensations that may possibly radiate down the arms, hands, or fingers
  • Neurological symptoms of dizziness, nausea, fatigue, ringing in the ears, or insomnia
  • Problems with memory, concentration, irritability, or depressive symptoms
  • Headaches that originate at the base of the skull and spread upward

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention to assess your injury and rule out any bone fractures or tissue damage in the neck.  Here at the Advanced Spine Center, our physicians have years of experience in treating patients with traumatic spinal injuries. Contact us today to make an appointment with our board certified, fellowship-trained Top Doctors.


Diagnosing Whiplash

Diagnosing whiplash can sometimes be a challenge, especially because some of the symptoms are still not completely understood by doctors. If you think you are experiencing whiplash, however, your physician will most likely use a combination of historical evaluation, physical examination, and imaging techniques.

As with most appointments, your physician will most likely want to know your medical history, as well as that of your family. A description of the events that caused your whiplash symptoms will also be necessary, along with a physical examination of your neck and shoulder region. Your physician will probably spend some time palpating the affected region and examining to see if there are any visible misalignments. Range of motion and muscle strength may be assessed by moving the affected area in physician-directed movements. If tingling or numbness in the arms or hands are part of your symptoms, your physician may test reflexes using a rubber mallet to assess in which area of the neck the nerves are being affected.

A majority of whiplash cases involve strain and damage to the soft tissues of the neck—structures like muscles, tendons, discs, and nerves. These tissues, although crucial, do not typically show up on the traditional X-rays. MRIs and CT scans will most likely be used to rule out any bone fractures and to observe any injuries to intervertebral discs. Bone scans, although used less often, may be employed to look for small fractures not easily detected by more common methods of imaging.

Whiplash Treatment Options

Pain Management

In mild cases of whiplash, over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be sufficient to provide pain relief for some; whereas prescription pain medications may be necessary for others. Muscle relaxers, steroids, or injections may also be needed.

Whiplash injuries can result in damage to the vertebrae themselves, which can exert strain on your spinal cord or the nerves that branch out from it. Your physician may need to perform a foraminotomy to remove bony obstructions that are causing nerve impingement.

If your whiplash injury led to disc herniation, your condition may require surgery. A microdiscectomy involves the surgical removal a damaged disc to relieve pressure. Further structural stabilization through disc replacement may be necessary to avoid additional damage.

Whiplash injuries often apply pressure to cervical nerves, generating inflammation, pain, and loss of sensation in the shoulders, arms, or hands. Your surgeon may need to perform a laminectomy (removal of the vertebral sheath) to relieve pressure and reverse symptoms.

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