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Whiplash Symptoms

Whiplash injury symptoms or Whiplash Associated Disorders (WADs) generally do not develop for some time after the accident and may get progressively worse of more painful for several days after the even before they begin to improve.

The reason for this is that although the soft tissues are traumatised at the time of the accident, it takes time for the resulting inflammation to become apparent. Typically speaking, the more quickly the symptoms of a whiplash injury or Whiplash-Associated Disorder become apparent, the more serious the damage is likely to be.

For many years people suffering from whiplash injuries were viewed as hypochondriacs because of the difficulties in accurately diagnosing the condition – x-rays will not show whiplash injuries unless they involve broken or dislocated vertebrae – the soft tissue injuries are not visible. These days there is no doubt that it is a very real and very unpleasant medical condition. When diagnosing suspected whiplash injuries there are a number of symptoms that suggest that a cervical spine injury has been sustained.

Common symptoms of whiplash injury (Whiplash Associated Disorders)

  • Neck pain
  • Stiff neck
  • Swelling of the neck
  • Soreness or tenderness down the back of the neck (possibly indicating facet joint injury)
  • Reduced neck movement
  • Headaches (‘cervicogenic’ or neck related)

Other whiplash injury symptoms

  • Back pain
  • Jaw Pain
  • Nausea
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Pins and needles (‘paraesthesia’) in the fingers, hands or arms
  • Numbness in the fingers, hands or arms
  • Heavy feeling in arms
  • Pain in areas that were not directly affected by the accident (‘referred pain’)
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness
  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears (‘tinnitus’)
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Memory Loss
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Sensation akin to ants crawling over the face (‘facial formication’)

Acute or chronic whiplash symptoms

  • Difficulty sleeping (‘insomnia’)
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Drug Dependency
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders

Further information

Should you seek medical attention for a suspected whiplash injury due to experiencing any of the above symptoms (recommended) then in order to assist in determining the severity of a whiplash injury, your doctor is likely to ask you questions about the accident itself as well as your symptoms, as this information can prove useful in assessing the likely nature and extent of any damage caused.

If the whiplash injuries were sustained due to a motoring-related accident then these questions are likely to relate to the nature, approximate speed and direction of the impact, whether or not you were wearing a seatbelt at the time, whether airbags were deployed, whether the vehicle was fitted with head restraints (headrests) and if so whether they were correctly adjusted for you. The direction in which you were facing at the time may also be of importance.

In certain circumstances, such as a serious road traffic accident where serious neck injury is suspected or simply as a precaution, the emergency services may opt to restrain the patient on a spinal board and restrict head and neck movement entirely until xrays can be performed at the hospital to ensure that none of the bones in the neck are broken. Pre-existing neck conditions or degenerative bone conditions may also indicate the need for further investigation – for example, conditions such as osteoporosis which results in brittle bones that are therefore more susceptible to impact damage.

Facet Joint Syndrome

One of the most common causes of chronic neck pain following a whiplash injury is Facet Joint Pain, or Facet Joint Syndrome. The symptom of this is tenderness or pain to one or other side of the rear of the spine (mentioned above) – it can be commonly mistaken for muscle pain. Disc problems are another cause of chronic neck pain – on occasion the disc can rupture or herniate and this can in some cases put pressure on cervical nerves leading to arm and neck pains. Lower back pain may also be found in cases where there is whiplash facet joint injury or disc injury or a combination of the two. More information on facet joints, including diagrams can be found at here.

X-rays and other scanning methods

In a non-emergency situation cervical spine x-rays may also be required if a medical professional has cause to suspect that significant damage such as a fracture or dislocation may have been sustained, or where a patient’s range of neck movement is severely inhibited, or in injuries involving falls from significant heights (typically greater than 1 metre).

X-rays alone are unable to show common soft-tissue whiplash damage in but would highlight cervical spine fractures and dislocations. MRI scans (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), CT scans (Computed Tomography) are also unable to show whiplash-related soft-tissue injuries directly, though disc problems and other issues may be visible using certain scanning methods and certain types of visible damage may highlight the likelihood of other damage. A reduction in the gap between two specific vertebra for example may indicate that a disc has ruptured or herniated.

Symptoms which are ongoing for a period in excess of 6 months are likely to require further investigation for disc or facet joint damage.

For more information on the treatment of whiplash and whiplash-associated disorders please see the appropriate sections.