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The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists

Whiplash by David Sheehan

Whiplash is a non-medical term used to describe a range of injuries to the neck caused by or related to a sudden distortion of the neck. It usually involves injury to the soft tissues of the neck (specifically ligaments, tendons, and muscles).

It is caused by an abnormal motion or force applied to the neck that causes the neck to move outside its usual range of motion. It is usually caused by a flexion-extension motion of the neck or “Cervical Acceleration-Deceleration” (CAD) which describes the mechanism of injury that pulls and strains the neck muscles and ligaments.

Whiplash injury is the most common neck injury resulting from car accidents and affects approximately 1 million people a year. While being rear ended in a car accident is the leading cause of whiplash, the neck can also be injured in contact sports. Symptoms may take a day or two to develop post injury and often include, pain, stiffness, headache, and back pain.

Symptoms of Whiplash

The symptoms of whiplash generally include some degree of neck pain and muscle stiffness. Depending on the severity of the injury, signs and symptoms may also include:

  • Tenderness along the back of the neck and shoulders
  • Neck swelling
  • Muscle spasms in the neck or shoulders
  • Difficulty flexing, extending, or rotating the head
  • Headache, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and/or fatigue
  • Jaw tightness or difficulty chewing
  • Severe cases of whiplash may also cause vision disturbance, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and other signs of nerve irritation

Treatment of Whiplash

Following an accident it is initially advised to consult your doctor. They will prescribe suitable pain and anti-inflammatory medication. They will assess you and see if further investigations are required. Once they are happy that there is no severe bony or neurological injury they will likely suggest seeing a Chartered Physiotherapist.


It has been found that active interventions, such as neck exercises and keeping the neck mobile, are better than inactive interventions, such as resting the neck and keeping it still by using a neck brace or collar.

Even though you may experience a pain initially, keeping your neck mobile from an early stage will help to improve it’s functionality and speed up your recovery.

Resting your neck and keeping it still is likely to prolong your symptoms and delay your recovery. Your neck may be sore when you move, but this is normal due to the injured tissues and it’s important to note that moving it will not cause further damage.

Physiotherapy uses a variety of physical methods, such as massage, manipulation and dry needling to promote healing. It can often help to restore a person’s range of movement following an injury such as whiplash.

As well as helping to relieve pain and stiffness in your neck using massage and manipulation, your physiotherapist will also be able to advise you about neck range of motion and strengthening exercises that you can do at home. This will help to facilitate your return to function.


Heat and ice are the two most common types of passive, non-invasive, and non-addictive therapies. Use an ice pack on your neck for the first 24-48 hours. Ice helps limit the inflammation response and reduces neck pain.

Use a hot pack on your neck after 48 hours. This is important because heat reduces muscle tension and facilitates nutrition to damaged tissue by increasing local circulation. Continue to use heat on your neck along with anti-inflammatory medication. Expect to do this for several weeks. Heat and cold can be used alternatively and are often used as a prelude to exercise therapy.


The outlook for whiplash will vary depending on how severely the neck has been sprained.

In the majority of cases the recovery time may take a few weeks. However, in severe cases, whiplash and whiplash-associated injuries can last for several months or even years. Seeking advice from your local Chartered Physiotherapist is the best way to determine that time frame you are likely to require to recover from your injuries.

If you are suffering with whiplash or any kind of neck pain please contact us at Galway Bay Physio on 091 569 706 or visit us at to book an appointment, so we can help you begin your recovery.

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