Whiplash (Neck Sprain)


The term “whiplash” is a non-medical term applied to the injury that occurs when the natural range of motion of the neck is exceeded, such as occurs in a car accident or a fall.

The bones of the cervical spine are connected by soft tissues, discs and ligaments, and these structures can be injured in these types of accidents.

The symptoms can include:

  • Pain, especially in the back of the neck, that worsens with movement
  • Pain that peaks a day or so after the injury, instead of immediately
  • Muscle spasms and pain in the upper shoulder
  • Neck stiffness or decreased range of motion
  • Headache in the back of the head
  • Increased irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating
  • Sore throat
  • Tingling or weakness in the arms and/or hands

The diagnosis is made by:

  • Careful history of how the injury occurred
  • Physical examination
  • X-rays to be sure there is no fracture, dislocation, or underlying arthritic condition.

Certainly there can be more serious causes of continued pain, such as a herniated disc, as illustrated here. However, in most cases, it is wise to try a period of conservative treatment to see how symptoms resolve prior to ordering an MRI.

For treatment recommendations:

Keep in mind that all sprains and strains gradually heal, with the usual time course of about 4-6 weeks. Treatment is generally symptomatic, or designed to minimize symptoms while time is passing. Non-operative treatments include soft collar, muscle relaxants, pain relievers such as aspirin, anti-inflammatory medicines, and judicious use of narcotic pain meds (which can be addictive).

For further details, see the section on non-surgical treatments.