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Physical Therapy for Whiplash – Information, Exercises, and More

You’ve recently been in a car accident or experienced a neck injury and think you may be experiencing whiplash. 

You’re unsure what exactly whiplash is, how to determine if you actually have whiplash, and what can be done to overcome it. 

It feels like one big pain in the neck, literally. 

We understand how overwhelming it can be to find the answers you’re looking for regarding your health and wellbeing. And we’re here to help. 

In this guide, we’re discussing the important information you need to know about whiplash, how to overcome the injury, and the resources available to you. Keep reading to learn more.

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a common type of neck injury that occurs when your head and neck are suddenly forced backward then forward sharply, in a whip like-motion that overstretches your neck and back ligaments, joints, and muscles. 

This type of injury puts the cervical spine under extreme stress from the lightning-quick motion. 

Whiplash is often also referred to as a neck strain or whiplash associated disorder (WAD). 

Symptoms vary based on which neck tissue has been injured, and how badly the injury is.

What Causes Whiplash?

Although most commonly associated with car accidents, whiplash can occur anytime your head is thrust forward and backward sharply. Other instances where this injury can occur include: 

  • Any blow to the head
  • A bicycle accident
  • Physical incidents—assault, abuse, even shaking a baby 
  • Sports accidents
  • Roller coaster rides
  • Bungee jumping
  • Horseback riding accidents
  • Other high-impact activities where the cervical spine has forces of extreme acceleration-deceleration applied to it  

Whiplash occurs when the muscles and ligaments of your neck extend past their normal range of motion. It can cause the ligaments and tendons to stretch too far and even tear. 

Whiplash is often thought of as a mild condition but can sometimes cause long-term pain and discomfort.

Whiplash Symptoms

Whiplash symptoms may not appear immediately after an injury, because of this it’s important to be aware of any physical changes you experience for several days after an accident or injury.

Typical whiplash signs and symptoms to look for include:

  • Pain and stiffness of the neck
  • Pain with neck movement
  • Muscle spasms
  • Reduced range-of-motion of your neck
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Shoulder/upper back pain

Radiating numbing, tingling, or weakness down your shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers on one side of the body. This is known as cervical radiculopathy. 

More severe, but less common symptoms may involve:

Some facilities classify WAD by different grades

  • Grade 1: Neck pain, tenderness, or stiffness 
  • Grade 2: Neck pain, loss of range-of-motion and tenderness  
  • Grade 3: Neck pain, loss of motion, and neurological symptoms like tingling or numbing of your arm, hand, or fingers 
  • Grade 4: Neck pain accompanies a dislocation or fracture 

Speak with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms as a result of a head or neck injury. 

Diagnosing Whiplash

If you’ve experienced a recent injury and are having symptoms associated with whiplash, your doctor will likely schedule a physical exam.  

After your initial assessment, your doctor may order…

  • An MRI
  • CT scan, or
  • An X-ray 

to look for and rule out any underlying issues that could be causing your pain— unfortunately, whiplash itself is not apparent on imaging tests. 

Your exam may also include a neurological exam in which your physician will check your nerve sensation and responsiveness.

Whiplash Treatment

Whiplash can be hard to diagnose, especially since it cannot be seen on any image testing.

In the past, doctors recommended using a cervical collar to help hold the neck and head in place after an accident or injury that caused whiplash. 

More recently, studies have found that this can actually cause more harm and prolong the healing process. 

Common Whiplash Treatments

In most cases, whiplash recovery is six to ten weeks long. Conventional whiplash treatments include: 

  • Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories
  • Heat therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Early intervention with mobilization exercise

Professionally Administered Treatments

In more extreme cases, your doctor may recommend more intense treatments, such as: 

  • Muscle relaxersyour doctor may prescribe muscle relaxers for short-term use to relieve pain and soothe those tight muscles  
  • Injections—depending on the severity of the pain, your doctor may give you the option to have lidocaine injections in the muscles surrounding your injury.
  • Manual manipulation—a medical professional, such as a chiropractor or physical therapist, may use his or her hands to make manual adjustments of the spine to relieve pain and stiffness as well as increase your range of motion.

Whiplash Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

You could benefit greatly from going to physical therapy after whiplash if you’re experiencing pain or other issues. 

Whiplash can cause long-lasting pain and discomfort. A physical therapist can help you learn different exercises to overcome the pain while helping your body heal

During your physical therapy appointment, your therapist will:

  • Assess your injury 
  • Recommend ways to make daily activities more bearable during the healing process
  • Teach you exercises to help relieve symptoms
  • Offer support during your physical therapy exercises to ensure you don’t cause more damage 

Best Whiplash Exercises

When healing from whiplash, one of the most important things you can do for your body is to get back to your normal range of motion as quickly as possible as safely as possible. 

Some of the most beneficial exercises for whiplash are range-of-motion exercises

In the following sections, we’re discussing a few of the best range of motion exercises to help you overcome your injury.

Flexor Strengthening

Isometric exercises strengthen your neck and upper back muscles with very little movement. Hence the name. Isometric neck training involves lying on the floor or a bed with a rolled-up towel under your neck. 

One of the easiest isometric exercises you can do is this flexor strengthening exercise. This exercise uses the larger muscles of your neck. 

  1. Start by imagining yourself lengthening at the back of your neck.
  2. Now, nod your head (giving yourself a double chin) while keeping your head on the towel.
  3. Hold for 10-30 seconds 
  4. Repeat for 3-5 repetitions

Side-To-Side Head Rotations

Side-to-side rotations are a common exercise taught during whiplash physical therapy sessions. Side-to-side rotations look like this: 

  1. Lie on your back
  2. Raise your chin toward your left shoulder—if necessary use your hand to gently pull your head further toward your shoulder for more of a stretch
  3. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds
  4. Now, rotate your head toward the opposite shoulder—again, use your hand if you need help pulling your head toward your left shoulder
  5. Hold again for 20 seconds.   
  6. Repeat for 3-5 repetitions on each side. 

These are only examples of some exercises that may help with whiplash. To determine the best exercises to do without injuring yourself further, consult a Doctor of Physical Therapy for advice.

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Whiplash

Exercise after whiplash can be scary. You don’t want to make the pain worse or cause permanent damage. 

That’s why our highly trained Doctors of Physical Therapy are here to help get you moving and grooving as you did prior to your injury.

As the number one physical therapy provider in the United States, according to Yelp! and Google, we are committed to providing the best care to every patient who walks through our door. 

Don’t suffer through the pain caused by your whiplash any longer — schedule your free consultation today to see if physical therapy is the most beneficial treatment plan for you.

*This information about physical therapy for whiplash was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.

In Motion O.C.