Whiplash the causes and how Physiotherapy can help

Date: 08/05/2009

If you are experiencing neck pain or stiffness following an injury or car accident, this summary will help you understand the causes and how physiotherapy can help.

Research suggests that in most cases it is best to keep normally active.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is a common injury in which the soft tissues in the neck are sprained as a result of the body being moved backwards and forwards by an unexpected, strong impact. Symptoms often include stiffness in the neck and back of the head, and headaches. Some people also feel pain in the shoulder, between the shoulder blades, or temporary dizziness.

What causes it?

The ‘backwards and forwards’ movement that causes whiplash most commonly results from a road traffic collision, but can also be due to a fall, a blow to the head, or a strenuous physical activity such as diving, horse riding or rugby.

How can physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapists are highly skilled at supporting people with whiplash. They will explain how you can manage the pain and contribute to your own recovery.

What will happen when I see a physiotherapist?

The physiotherapist will assess how your head and neck are working and affecting your life. They will ask lots of questions, watch your movements and touch the affected area. Recommendations for treatment depend on the length of time that has passed since the injury. Any visit is likely to include:

  • exercises to do yourself
  • some manual therapy
  • advice on posture while sitting and sleeping, including practical advice on pillows
  • lifestyle advice, and activities to avoid.

It may also include:

  • applying heat or cold to the affected area
  • TENS – to help with any pain.

Meanwhile, how can I help myself?

  • During the first 24 hours after the accident, apply ice to the area (a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a teatowel is ideal), to reduce the inflammation.
  • Try to keep moving: a quick recovery is more likely if you maintain your normal activities
  • Seek early advice from a healthcare professional about how to keep active and to keep your neck moving.
  • Take simple regular pain relief, following the instructions on the packet. If you need something stronger, see your GP.
  • Set your car headrest at the right height for you, to reduce injury from any future collisions.

Note: The following symptoms are very rare, but contact the doctor or hospital immediately if:

  • you have experienced memory loss or unconsciousness since the incident
  • you have severe pain in the back of the head, or numbness and pins and needles in the arms or hands
  • your arms feel unusually heavy
  • you have dizziness, ringing in the ears or blurred vision that does not disappear quickly
  • the pain lasts more than four-to-six weeks.

Where can I get more information?

The Whiplash Book Booklet by Kim Burton et al, published by The Stationery Office (2002). A classic source, which offers advice and exercises to cope with whiplash injury. www.tsoshop.co.uk/bookstore.asp?Action=Book&ProductId=0117028622

Clinical Guidelines for the physiotherapy management of whiplash associated disorder. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, London. Moore A et al. (2005)  www.csp.org.uk/uploads/documents/csp_whiplash_guideline.pdf

Supplied by Mr R J D’Souza BPhil MCSP Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist. Telephone: 01872 241882 Reference: Chartered Society of Physiotherapy

The content on this page is provided for general information purposes only and is not meant to replace a physiotherapy or medical consultation.

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