What is Whiplash and How Do I Know if I Need to See a Doctor?


Interventional Pain Management Specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang explains whiplash injury and signs of trouble.

Whiplash may be a literal pain in the neck, but this common injury is no run-of-the-mill condition. That’s why whiplash often requires a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment advice, according to Kaliq Chang MD](/about/kaliq-chang/), of Atlantic Spine Center.

Whiplash is a type of neck injury that occurs when the head is suddenly jerked back and forth. This can cause damage to the soft tissues of the neck, including muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Whiplash can be a painful and debilitating condition, but with proper treatment, most people can fully recover within a few weeks or months.

An estimated 120,000 cases of whiplash occur in the United States every year, usually resulting from a rear-end auto accident but also from sports accidents or other types of trauma. Whiplash gets its catchy name from the whip-like, rapid back-and-forth neck movement that triggers the injury, which can also have significant and lingering effects on the spine.

“Bones in the spine, ligaments, muscles, nerves, vertebral discs, and other tissues of the neck can all be injured from whiplash, when someone’s head is quickly and forcefully thrust backward and forward,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “Ruling out fractures or other tissue damage that prompts symptoms is a serious matter.”


Some people who suffer from whiplash pain don’t experience immediate symptoms, Dr. Chang says. But usually, the first signs of whiplash develop within 24 hours and can include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches that usually start at the base of the skill
  • Worse neck pain when the neck is moved
  • Less range of motion in the neck
  • Pain or tenderness of the shoulders, upper back or arms
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

“Whiplash symptoms are no joke,” Dr. Chang says. “In all but the most minor cases of whiplash, symptoms can make it difficult to do normal activities without pain. That’s why a proper diagnosis, often with an MRI, and prompt treatment are crucial.”


As Dr. Chang says, seeing a doctor for a whiplash neck is necessary in all except minor cases. Often, the car accident, sports injury or other traumatic injuries that caused your whiplash will be followed by a trip to the hospital or a doctor’s office anyway.

“When you’re being examined, make sure you clearly explain how severe your neck pain is, what movements make it worse, and any neck pain you’ve experienced in the past,” Dr. Chang advises. “Offering a detailed explanation of your symptoms and history will help guide your doctor’s approach to imaging tests and other ways of assessing your condition.”

Whiplash treatment often goes beyond the soft foam cervical collars that were once the standard therapy, Dr. Chang says, since they’re now used less often or for shorter periods. That’s because recent research suggests that keeping the neck immobile for long periods actually slows healing.

Other whiplash treatments might include applying ice or heat; taking over-the-counter or prescription painkillers or muscle relaxants; or receiving injections of numbing medication into painful tissues. Physical therapy is often an important part of whiplash recovery as well, Dr. Chang notes. This may involve exercises to improve the range of motion, strengthen the neck muscles, and reduce pain and inflammation. In some cases, a physical therapist may also use manual therapy techniques, such as massage or joint mobilization, to help relieve muscle tension and improve circulation. In addition to physical therapy and pain management, other treatments for whiplash may include the use of heat or ice therapy, acupuncture, or chiropractic care. These alternative therapies can help relieve pain and promote healing, but it's important to consult with a healthcare professional before trying any new treatments.

Overall, with the right treatment and care, most people with whiplash can fully recover and return to their normal activities within a few weeks or months. However, it's important to seek medical attention as soon as possible if you suspect you may have whiplash, as early intervention can help prevent complications and speed up the healing process. “The goal is to restore the range of motion in your neck and upper body so you can move again with no pain,” Dr. Chang explains. “Whiplash can be much more than a pain in the neck when it comes to recovering, but fortunately, nearly everyone who experiences this injury will recover fully.”