What Is Whiplash? By Medical News Today

Whiplash, or WAD (whiplash-associated disorders) refers to a series of neck injuries caused by or related to a sudden distortion of the neck – hyperextension (over-extension) injury to the neck. In many cases whiplash is the result of being struck from behind, for example, by a fast moving vehicle in an automobile accident.

In a typical case the victim’s body is initially pushed or accelerated forward while the head remains behind for an instant, making the head rock up and back, stretching and/or tearing some muscles, tendons and ligaments. The muscles react automatically (reflex motion) to bring the heard forward – sometimes this is overdone and the head may rock forward violently, further stretching and/or tearing muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Tendons are tissues by which muscles attach to bone. Tendons are flexible, fibrous and tough. Like ligaments, tendons are tough flexible cords. Ligaments go from bone-to-bone while tendons go from muscle-to-bone. Although tendons and ligaments are tough, they are known as soft tissue (because they are usually compared to bone or cartilage).

Most people associate whiplash with one vehicle being hit in the rear by another vehicle – the driver in front sustains the whiplash. However, the impact can come from any direction and the head may move backwards or sideways, not only forwards initially. Whiplash injury may also be sustained in various ways, such as from falling off a bicycle or a horse.

Put simply, the ligaments and tendons in the neck are sprained during a whiplash injury because, for example, the ligament has been overstretched. Even though the neck has not been broken, it may sometimes take several months for everything to heal.

An individual with a whiplash injury will experience stiffness, pain, headaches, muscle spasms, shoulder pain, and temporary loss of movement in the neck. Whiplash may also be caused by a powerful blow to the head, for example during rugby, American football, karate, or boxing.

Women are more susceptible to whiplash injuries than men; experts believe it is because women’s neck muscles are usually not as strong as men’s.

According to Medilexicon’s medical dictionary:
Whiplash injury is a “popular term for flexion-extension injury.”

What are the symptoms of a whiplash injury?
A symptom is something the patient feels and reports, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor detect. For example, pain may be a symptom while a rash may be a sign.

A whiplash injury typically takes from 12 to 24 hours after the accident or blow to develop. At the time of the incident any swelling or bruising to the neck muscles will not be apparent straight away. In most cases the discomfort, pain and stiffness is much worse on the following day, and may continue to worsen as each day goes by. A person with a whiplash injury may experience:

A loss (or reduction) of movement in the neck


Neck pain

Neck stiffness

The back of the neck feels tender

Lower back pain

Pain in the arms and hands

Numbness or pins and needles in the arms and hands

Muscle spasms



Swallowing difficulties

Vision problems (vision may be blurred)

A feeling that you are moving or spinning (vertigo)

Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

Sleep disturbances


Memory loss

Poor concentration

Headaches, dizziness, problems swallowing and vision problems should not last long. If they do, tell your doctor.

What are the causes of whiplash injuries?
A whiplash injury may occur if the head is moved violently away from the body because of a sudden and powerful jerk or jolt. The neck moves beyond its normal range of movement, resulting in overstretched ligaments, muscles and tendons. The injury is often exacerbated because the muscles, in order to compensate for the sudden movement, pull the head back into position too hard, causing another overstretching in the opposite direction.

The jolt (or blow to the head) can come from behind, in front, and from the side. A slow-speed collision may also cause a whiplash injury.

The following are possible causes of whiplash:
• Automobile accidents
• A sudden blow to the head from a contact sport, such as rugby, boxing, karate, or American football.
• A horse riding or cycling accident
• Any fall which causes the head to violently jolt backwards
• Being hit on the head with a heavy object

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What is whiplash?