What is Whiplash Anyway?

a view from behind an injured person sitting in bed, clutching their back after a whiplash injury. They are also wearing a neckbrace.

We’ve all heard someone say they’ve had whiplash before. Its causes range from car accidents to slips on the ice and everything in between. But what is whiplash, what tissues in the body are damaged by a whiplash injury, and most importantly, how should it be treated?

Whiplash is a neck and spinal injury that can occur for a variety of reasons. First, the rapid “back and forth” motion of the cervical spine stretches and compresses the ligaments, tendons, joints, and muscles in the neck and upper back. Think of the motion of cracking a whip, which is where the name comes from. Whiplash from a car accident can diminish your ability to do the things you love, like hiking, skiing, or gardening, and even the things you NEED to do, like performing at work or caring for your children.

What causes a whiplash injury?

In a rear-end accident, for instance, during the initial impact, the torso (the area above the waist and below the neck) is pushed forward, followed by the neck and head. This happens in just the first 50 to 100 milliseconds (ms) of the accident. In the next 100 to 200 ms, the lower part of the neck extends backward while the upper part flexes forward and then accelerates backward again, where it is (hopefully) stopped by the headrest. Finally, there is another change in direction where the head and neck are thrown forward, this time (again, hopefully) stopped by a seat belt or airbag. All of this happens in about 350 ms, roughly the same amount of time it takes to blink an eye!

Several types of incidents cause whiplash injuries. Some of the most common whiplash injury causes include the following:

  • Amusement park rides – Some rides may make your head jerk, which can cause whiplash.
  • Assault – Being shaken or beaten can cause whiplash.
  • Car accidents – Motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) are among the most common causes of whiplash.
  • Rear-end accidents – Being struck from behind can trigger the “back and forth” motion that causes whiplash. Although commonly associated with MVAs, being struck from behind while operating a wheelchair, bicycle, or walking could cause whiplash.
  • Slip and fall accidents – Individuals who slip and fall may strike their heads on the ground, causing whiplash.
  • Sports accidents – Accidents while horseback riding or incidents during sports such as football can cause whiplash.
  • T-bone accidents – Although whiplash is commonly associated with rear-end accidents, any MVA can cause whiplash.
  • Truck accidents – Truck accidents are MVAs involving large vehicles such as semis or construction vehicles. Truck accidents caused thousands of fatalities and over 100,000 injuries in 2020.

What tissue does a whiplash injury affect?

So what actually causes your pain? Is it injured muscles, stretched ligaments, or something else? The most common medical term used to describe a whiplash injury is “cervical sprain/strain.” This refers to injuries to the ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the neck and upper back. Muscles are what move the bones and joints in the body. Muscles tend to be fairly elastic, while ligaments (which hold the bones together around a joint) tend not to stretch much at all. Muscles are attached to bones by tendons, and the term “strain” is used to describe an injury to a tendon or muscle, while a “sprain” typically refers to an injury to a ligament or joint.

Both strains and sprains are graded on a scale of 1 (mild), 2 (moderate), or 3 (severe). How quickly your injuries heal depends on the severity of your injury and the treatment you receive. Of course, not all car accidents are the same. The age and size of the vehicles involved, a raised or lowered headrest (please raise your headrest!), and road conditions all play a role. Differences in the age, health, and physical build of the people in an accident mean that a single accident can cause one person to suffer injuries while the person sitting next to them is relatively unharmed. 

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Whiplash injury symptoms vary depending on the severity of the injury. Some individuals may develop symptoms shortly after their accident, while others may not experience symptoms for a day or two. Whiplash symptoms can include bowel and bladder issues, trouble sleeping, irritability, and fatigue, making it hard to perform routine tasks. Other common whiplash symptoms affect specific body parts, including your head, brain, neck, shoulders, upper back, and arms.

Common whiplash symptoms affecting your head or mind include the following:

  • Blurred vision
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of memory/memory recall issues
  • Tinnitus

Common whiplash symptoms affecting your neck include the following:

  • Reduced range of motion
  • Neck pain
  • Neck stiffness

Common whiplash symptoms affecting your shoulders, upper back, and arms include the following:

  • Arm numbness
  • Arm pain or tenderness
  • Shoulder pain or tenderness
  • Upper back pain or tenderness

How is whiplash diagnosed? 

Individuals with multiple symptoms may have whiplash-associated disorder (WAD). WADs are graded based on their severity and the nature of the symptoms. While other whiplash symptoms may be present, diagnosing WAD requires the presence of the specified symptoms in the identified areas. The WAD categories are as follows:

GradeAffected AreasSymptoms
WAD Grade 0N/ANo symptoms.
WAD Grade INeckPain, tenderness, or stiffness.
WAD Grade IINeck and musculoskeletal system.Tenderness and reduced range of motion.
WAD Grade IIINeck and neurological system.Tenderness and sensory issues.
WAD Grade IVNeck and dislocation or fracture.Dislocation or fracture.

Diagnosing WAD involves consulting a medical professional about your symptoms. To diagnose whiplash, your doctor will complete the following steps:

  • Perform a physical evaluation
  • Order one or more of the following:
    • CT scan
    • MRI scan
    • X-ray scan

What’s the best treatment for whiplash?

The symptoms of a whiplash injury can take a few days to a couple of weeks to develop. After an accident, it’s always best to see a provider that specializes in recognizing these symptoms. Beginning your care right after you experience a whiplash injury helps minimize its long-term effects. This also helps get you back to “normal” as quickly as possible. Your healthcare provider should focus on restoring function to the areas injured in your accident to ensure they heal properly. 

After any injury, our bodies will start the healing process whether we treat them or not. Without proper treatment, those strains and sprains will create scar tissue which is like a scab on a cut. Scar tissue doesn’t bend, twist or stretch like healthy tissue. This can lead to long-term problems like joint pain, muscle weakness, and loss of mobility.

There are many different causes of the pain associated with whiplash injuries, so it makes sense that there would be different treatments needed to address all of those problems. The ideal treatment plan uses a combination of therapies provided by a team of providers working together to treat your specific injury. The providers at Integrative Health and Rehabilitation in Denver, Colorado use a combination of acupuncture, chiropractic, dry needling, massage therapy, physical therapy, and trigger point injections to help address your injuries and provide quality pain relief.

You can use various treatment options to manage pain, including the following:

  • Applying cold
  • Applying heat
  • Receiving injections of painkillers
  • Taking muscle relaxants
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medications
  • Taking prescription painkillers

You may also benefit from resting, giving your body time to heal from your injuries. In addition to these treatment options, wearing a foam collar and performing exercises that help you regain your full range of motion may be part of an effective treatment strategy. Seeing a physical therapist is ideal because your physical therapist can customize a treatment plan based on your condition.

What should I avoid if I suffer from whiplash?

Avoiding some activities can promote your recovery from whiplash and prevent you from exacerbating your injuries. You should avoid playing sports or engaging in activities that require you to twist your neck or could jar your neck or shoulders. Other activities you should avoid include the following:

  • Driving – Safe driving requires drivers to twist their necks to check for other vehicles when changing lanes or backing up. 
  • Limiting your mobility – Sitting still for too long can cause your muscles to tighten and delay healing.
  • Reaching above your head – Any activities that involve raising your arms above your head can aggravate injuries to your shoulders or neck.
  • Relying on a brace – Wearing a brace protects you while you heal, but wearing it too long can prevent your muscles from regaining strength and healing. 

It’s important that you treat whiplash symptoms seriously and seek prompt treatment to ensure your full recovery.

Can I sue the other driver for my whiplash injury? 

Suppose you’re suffering whiplash from car accident trauma, and another driver caused your car accident. You can seek whiplash injury compensation by initiating a lawsuit against the at-fault driver. As an accident victim, you can pursue economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages include costs you can calculate, such as lost wages and medical bills. Non-economic damages offer compensation for pain and suffering. You may also qualify for punitive damages depending on the accident’s location and cause.

Contact a Colorado car accident lawyer today

an unidentifiable car accident lawyer who's working on papers for their client. There's a stack of books and a gavel next to them as well.

Coping with the impact of an injury can be stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. That’s why you should contact the personal injury lawyers with Bachus & Schanker and schedule your free consultation today. We don’t charge fees until we win your case, ensuring finances won’t keep you from receiving expert legal guidance after your accident.

Whether you need a car accident lawyer, a slip and fall attorney, or a catastrophic injury lawyer, our legal team is standing by to answer your questions and provide the legal help you need.


Average duration of a single eye blink. (2023). 

Classifying whiplash associated disorder (WAD) severity – SIRA. (2023). 

Experience Rapid Healing and Improved Health With Integrative Health & Rehabilitation. (2023). 

Johnson, S. (2021). Whiplash Injury Overview. 

Large Trucks. (2023)

Pastakia, K., et al. (2011). Acute whiplash associated disorders (WAD)

Whiplash Overview. (2022).

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