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Have you had a whiplash injury? Here’s why you should seek help from your local physio

Published: 08 June 2023 - Injury Treatment and Prevention


What does “whiplash” mean?

Whiplash describes the acceleration-deceleration forces placed on the neck which may occur in motor vehicle collisions.1 These forces can cause injury to the structures around the neck and other parts of the spine and can be likened to an ankle sprain. Like ankle sprains, there can be pain and stiffness soon after the injury. Unlike an ankle sprain, where you might see swelling or bruising, a whiplash injury cannot be seen from the surface which can feel frustrating. Whiplash can also be associated with headaches, dizziness and sometime pins and needles and/or numbness down the arms. Some people are quite worried about their symptoms, but it is important to understand that most symptoms are mild and will improve, although time frames vary from individual to individual. No two whiplash injuries are the same, which is why individualised treatment is essential.

What happens when you have had a whiplash injury?

If you have recently sustained a whiplash injury, it can be an overwhelming and stressful time as you deal with insurance companies, car repairs and pain. In the early days after injury, managing pain and stress are important. Your local physio will discuss strategies that can help reduce your pain and techniques to maintain some gentle physical activity. Prolonged rest or neck braces are not recommended after whiplash; however, you may be encouraged by your physio to move your neck gently to encourage recovery. It is really important to remember that pain does not necessarily equal tissue injury or damage, and most often motion is lotion!

What can I do to help myself?

Studies have shown that people recover more quickly when they are positive about their injury recovery and gradually resume normal activities as tolerated. Returning to your normal activities can be helpful for both the recovery of your neck and emotional wellbeing. There is also good evidence that continuing to work (even in a reduced capacity) may be helpful when compared to long periods off work. You may need to communicate with your workplace to problem-solve ways to modify your work tasks or environment to make it more comfortable. Your physio can make suggestions about work tasks or positions to help reduce neck pain or headache. For example, encouraging regular changes in position and varying tasks may be more comfortable than repetitive tasks or prolonged positions. Don’t wait until you feel neck or back pain before changing positions.

Communication with coworkers, family members and friends is important especially if you are finding the things you usually do are painful or difficult to do. Pain can be very tiring, so feeling fatigued is quite normal early on. Pacing and giving your body time to adjust may be helpful.

How can a physio help?

Your local physiotherapist may also trial some manual therapy techniques like joint mobilisations which may improve pain and movement. It is important to supplement hands-on treatment with exercises aimed to maintain movement, muscle strength and coordination around the neck, back and shoulders. Interestingly, pain can initially make it harder for these muscles to work like they did pre-injury, so it is important to identify changes in muscle function and to learn how to get these muscles working efficiently again. Your local physio can perform physical tests to identify your main issues and formulate a treatment plan to address these issues.

There are lots of free resources available to aid in the general recovery of whiplash1,2, with many treatment options available3. If you are experiencing symptoms after a whiplash injury, we encourage consulting with your local physiotherapist for an individual assessment earlier rather than later. Your physio can give you specific and individual advice and treatment to help you recover and get back to doing the things you love.