Health A to Z
Whiplash injury is a type of neck injury caused by sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.
It occurs when the soft tissues in the neck become stretched and damaged (sprained).
Whiplash will often get better within a few weeks or months, but for some people it can last longer and severely limit their activities.
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Common symptoms of whiplash include:
It can take several hours for the symptoms to develop after you injure your neck. The symptoms are often worse the day after the injury, and may continue to get worse for several days.
Visit your GP if you've recently been involved in a road accident, or you've had a sudden impact to your head and you have pain and stiffness in your neck.
They'll ask how the injury happened and about your symptoms. They may also examine your neck for muscle spasms and tenderness, and may assess the range of movement in your neck.
Scans and tests such as X-rays will usually only be carried out if a broken bone or other problem is suspected.
Whiplash can occur if the head is thrown forwards, backwards or sideways violently.
Common causes of whiplash include:
Whiplash will usually get better on its own or after some basic treatment.
Treatments for whiplash include:
If your pain lasts a long time, you may be referred for specialist treatment and support at an NHS pain clinic.
Painkilling injections and surgery aren't normally used for whiplash.
Read more about how whiplash is treated.
The length of time it takes to recover from whiplash can vary and is very hard to predict.
Many people will feel better within a few weeks or months, but sometimes it can last up to a year or more.
Try to remain positive and focus on your treatment objectives. But if you do feel depressed, speak to your GP about appropriate treatment and support.
Whiplash will often get better on its own or after some simple treatment in a few weeks or months.
But sometimes it can cause severe and troublesome symptoms that last a long time.
The main treatments for whiplash are outlined below.
It's important not to rest your neck for prolonged periods if you have whiplash.
Your neck may be painful at first, but keeping it mobile will improve its movement and speed up your recovery. Any pain you experience when moving your neck is normal and won't cause further damage.
It's best to try to carry on with your normal activities and not use a neck brace or collar. Try to avoid staying in the same position, such as sitting or lying down, for long periods.
Doing some controlled neck exercises may also help reduce stiffness. Read an NHS leaflet on whiplash (PDF, 259kb) for some simple exercises you can try.
The following measures can also help reduce your pain and aid your recovery:
Painkillers can help relieve the pain of a whiplash injury.
Always read the leaflet that comes with your medication to check whether it's suitable for you. For example, ibuprofen shouldn't be taken by anyone with a history of stomach ulcers.
If one of these medicines doesn't relieve your pain, you can try taking both together. Read more about taking paracetamol and ibuprofen together.
If your neck pain is more severe, your GP can recommend a stronger painkiller, such as codeine. This can be used on its own or in combination with other painkillers.
Physiotherapy may be recommended if your symptoms continue for several weeks.
A physiotherapist may use a range of physical techniques to help improve your symptoms, such as:
You may be able to get a referral for NHS physiotherapy through your GP, or you can choose to pay for private treatment.
Read more about accessing physiotherapy.
Whiplash that lasts for six months or more is known as chronic whiplash or late whiplash syndrome.
There's little in the way of scientific evidence to suggest which treatments are most effective for long-term whiplash. Continuing with the treatments above is often recommended.
If you have long-term pain, ask your GP about a referral to a specialist NHS pain clinic for further treatment and support.
If you're struggling to cope with your symptoms, talk to your GP about medication and psychological support – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – that may help.