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Hyperextension Injury of the Neck - Whiplash

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Whiplash occurs when the neck is suddenly and forcibly bent backward and forward. This causes injury to the joints of the neck, known as the cervical vertebrae, and to the surrounding soft tissue. The most common causes of whiplash are motor vehicle accidents, especially when the vehicle is struck from the rear.

What are the causes and risks of the injury?

Whiplash injuries usually happen to a person who is not wearing a seat belt when a motor vehicle is rear-ended. As a result of whiplash, the ligaments in the neck may be stretched or even torn. Sometimes fractures in the vertebrae may also be involved.

Symptoms & Signs

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury?

Whiplash generally causes:

  • neck pain, usually in the back of the neck along either side of the spine
  • pain with any motion of the neck
  • a stiff neck
  • headache
  • numbness or a tingling sensation in the upper body

  • Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the injury recognized?

    Whiplash is diagnosed with a complete physical examination and medical history, including details of the accident.

    Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the injury?

    Generally, wearing a seat belt and avoiding motion that causes sudden jerking of the head can prevent this injury.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the injury?

    Time and gentle range of motion exercises are usually the best treatments for whiplash. The healthcare provider may also recommend:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen to help reduce the pain and swelling
  • a cool compress applied to the neck
  • narcotic medications for severe pain
  • muscle relaxing medications for muscle spasms
  • physical therapy, if symptoms persist
  • What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Side effects depend on the medications used, but may include drowsiness, stomach upset, or allergic reactions.

    What happens after treatment for the injury?

    It may take from 2 to 4 weeks before the person regains full range of motion of the neck without pain. The individual may have recurrent headaches. Physical therapy may be needed to help keep the neck muscles strong and healthy.


    Author:James Broomfield, MD
    Date Written:
    Editor:Ballenberg, Sally, BS
    Edit Date:11/29/00
    Reviewer:Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed:07/05/01