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Back Pain Health Center

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Whiplash - Topic Overview

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is pain and stiffness in the neck after an injury that has caused the neck to move suddenly or beyond its normal range.

It occurs when the head is suddenly forced backward or forward and is then snapped in the other direction. This kind of motion most often happens to people in a car that is hit from behind. Less commonly, it might happen in a fall, a sports injury, or if you are roughly shaken. The motion causes stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck, and it may damage the nerves. In rare cases, it may cause broken bones.

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What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of whiplash are pain and stiffness in the neck and sometimes in the muscles in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms. You also may have a headache, feel dizzy, and have pain in your back.

You may not have any symptoms until the day after your injury. Or your symptoms may go away but then return a few days later.

You may have a more serious injury if you have:

  • Severe pain in your neck.
  • Pain down one or both arms.
  • Pain that comes back after being gone for a few days.
  • Numbness or tingling in your hands, arms, chest, or legs.
  • Weakness in your arms, hands, or legs.
  • Inability to move your head.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your neck injury and past health, and he or she will carefully examine your head and neck. You may need X-rays to make sure there are no broken bones in your neck. You may also need an imaging test such as an MRI or CT scan to look for other injuries.

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