What is whiplash?

Whiplash: Overview

Whiplash occurs when your head is suddenly forced forward and then snapped backward, as might happen in a car accident or sports injury. This can cause pain and stiffness in your neck. Your head, chest, shoulders, and arms also may hurt.

Most whiplash gets better with home care. Your doctor may advise you to take medicine to relieve pain or relax your muscles. The doctor may suggest exercise and physical therapy to increase flexibility and relieve pain. For a while you probably will need to avoid lifting and other activities that can strain the neck.


Whiplash occurs when the head is suddenly forced forward and then snapped backward (or vice versa), as might happen in a car accident or sports injury or while being shaken. This may cause stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck.

Neck pain caused by minor whiplash usually improves within 3 months with home treatment. More severe whiplash may take longer but usually improves in 6 to 12 months with occasional continuing pain.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Symptoms of whiplash include pain and stiffness in the neck. Whiplash may also affect muscles in your head, chest, shoulders, and arms. You may have a headache, feel dizzy, and have pain in your back. Symptoms might start the day after injury. Or they may go away but then return a few days later.

Can you prevent whiplash?

To help prevent whiplash when you drive, always wear your seat belt and adjust your headrest to the proper height.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your neck injury and past health. Your head and neck will be carefully checked. You may need X-rays to make sure there are no broken bones in your neck. You may also need an imaging test such as an MRI or CT scan to look for other injuries.

Taking care of yourself when you have whiplash

Most whiplash improves with home treatment.

  • Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter pain medicine such as acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen.
    • Your doctor may prescribe pain medicines and muscle relaxers to help with continuing or severe pain.
    • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Try heat or ice.

    There isn't strong evidence that heat or ice helps. But you can try using them to see if they help you.

    • Try using a heating pad on a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. Try a warm shower in place of one session with the heating pad. You can also buy single-use heat wraps that last up to 8 hours.
    • You can also try an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
  • Avoid activities such as lifting and sports that make pain and stiffness worse.
  • Place a special pillow or a tightly rolled-up towel under your neck while you sleep.

    Do not use your regular pillow at the same time.

  • Talk with your doctor about whether physical therapy could help you.
  • Return to your normal daily activities as soon as possible.

It takes up to 3 months for the neck to heal, even though most pain may be gone in less time. More severe whiplash may take longer, but it usually improves within 6 to 12 months.

After your neck pain is gone, do exercises to stretch and strengthen your neck and back. Your doctor or physical therapist can tell you which exercises are best.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash is pain and stiffness in the neck after an injury that has caused the neck to move suddenly or beyond its normal range.

It occurs when the head is suddenly forced backward or forward and is then snapped in the other direction. This kind of motion most often happens to people in a car that is hit from behind. Less commonly, it might happen in a fall, a sports injury, or if you are roughly shaken. The motion causes stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck, and it may damage the nerves. In rare cases, it may cause broken bones.

Whiplash: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You are unable to move an arm or a leg at all.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms in your arms, legs, chest, belly, or buttocks. Symptoms may include:
    • Numbness or tingling.
    • Weakness.
    • Pain.
  • You lose bladder or bowel control.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You are not getting better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.