What Is Whiplash?


Whiplash is a neck injury that occurs from a forceful back-and-forth motion of the head. During the rapid whip-like movement, muscles and ligaments in the neck become extended beyond their normal range of motion, causing them to stretch and tear. Intervertebral joints, discs, and nerve roots may also be damaged due to whiplash.

Although typically a mild condition, whiplash may develop into chronic pain, especially if left untreated. When following a proper treatment plan, recovery time is usually within a few weeks.


Symptoms may not appear for several days; therefore, it is important to be alert to any physical changes following the initial trauma. Whiplash symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Headaches (typically at the base of the skull)
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness or pain in arms or hands
  • Fatigue
  • Tenderness or pain in the shoulder or between the shoulder blades
  • Pain in the upper or lower back
  • Loss of range of motion in the neck
  • Neck stiffness or pain
  • Neck pain that worsens with movement
  • Irritability, depression, or other mood disturbances
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Memory issues
  • Blurred vision
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Difficulty concentrating

Seek medical attention

A health care professional should be consulted following a traumatic injury. This is especially true for symptoms that include the following:

  • Localized weakness in an arm or leg
  • Severe neck pain
  • Neck pain or stiffness that disappears and returns
  • Pain, numbness or tingling in shoulders, arms or legs
  • Bladder or bowel problems

Seek urgent care

Individuals should seek immediate medical attention if any of the following occurs:

  • Moving the head becomes painful.
  • Numbness or weakness occurs in the arms.
  • Symptoms spread to the shoulders or arms.


Whiplash is caused by a sudden and forceful back-and-forth motion of the head. Events that may cause whiplash include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Motor vehicle collision, especially rear-end collisions
  • Horseback riding
  • Falls in which the head violently jerks backward
  • Physical assault, particularly being hit or shaken
  • Contact sports, such as football, boxing, or martial arts
  • Cycling collision or fall
  • Blow to the head, especially with a heavy object
  • Shaken baby syndrome

Risk Factors

Risk factors linked to a whiplash injury include the following:

  • Older age
  • A high-speed injury
  • Existing or previous lower back or neck pain
  • Previous whiplash diagnosis
  • Female sex
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