What is it?

Whiplash is an injury to the muscles, tendons and other soft tissues of the neck. It is caused by a sudden and vigorous movement of the head, sideways, backwards or forwards.

When the neck is moved beyond its usual range of movement, the soft tissues of the neck (tendons, muscles and ligaments) may be overstretched or sprained. This causes pain and discomfort in the neck and shoulders and may also cause back pain. Sometimes there are no symptoms of whiplash, but sometimes the symptoms can be severe.

Pain from a whiplash injury often begins 6 to 12 hours after the injury. Many people feel uncomfortable on the day of the injury or accident and find that pain, swelling and bruising that increase over the following days.

Common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • neck pain and stiffness

  • swelling and tenderness in the neck

  • temporary loss of movement, or reduced movement, in the neck

  • headaches

  • muscle spasms

  • pain in the shoulders or arms

  • dizziness

  • weakness

  • pins and needles, numbness or pain in the arms and hands

  • difficulty concentrating

  • difficulties swallowing

  • blurred vision

  • vertigo (a feeling you are moving or spinning) and dizziness

  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

The symptoms often greatly improve or disappear within a few days to weeks. It may take longer for symptoms to completely disappear and some people experience some pain and neck stiffness for months after a whiplash injury.

Mechanism of Injury

Whiplash injuries are commonly caused by motor vehicle accidents. The neck is quickly accelerated and decelerated due to rear-end or side impact. It can also be caused by a sudden blow to the head from contact sports such as rugby or boxing, being hit on the head by a heavy object, or a slip or fall where the head is jolted or jarred.

Common Management Techniques

Physiotherapy uses a combination of massage, joint mobilisations, stretches and strengthening exercises.

  • Education/Advice – specific solutions to avoid aggravating movements.

  • Massage – reduce tension and spasm in associated muscles to promote better movement.

  • Dry Needling/Acupuncture – is a safe way to release tight muscles and decrease pain levels.

  • Heat/Ice – can be effective treatment modality that can be used to ease discomfort at home or at work.

  • Sleeping and pillows - Avoid sleeping on too many pillows. Pillows should support the head without bending the neck to an angle.

  • Tailored Exercise - Keep neck mobile within patient’s comfort zone. We can design gentle exercise that aids a more rapid recovery.

  • Posture - Keep a good posture during all tasks. As part of a patient’s treatment, our Physiotherapist will demonstrate how to achieve this.


Most people fully recover from a whiplash injury. But in a small percentage of people, whiplash can lead to ongoing pain and disability. Some people may develop depression or post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Research has shown that people who believe they are going to recover after whiplash have a better chance of full recovery than people who feel distressed and negative about their injury. Your age and how bad the initial injury was also play in a role in how quickly you will recover.