Have you recently been involved in a car accident and are experiencing neck pain and stiffness? You may be suffering from whiplash injury. It is a common injury that can occur as a result of a sudden, forceful movement of the head that causes the neck to stretch and then snap back into place, damaging the muscles, ligaments, and other tissues in the neck.
If you think you may have a whiplash injury, here’s what you need to know.
Whiplash Symptoms and Diagnosis
Whiplash is fairly common, affecting millions of people worldwide annually. Whiplash symptoms depend on the significance of the impact and security of the neck hypertension or compression. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the greater the extension or compression, the greater the injury.
Symptoms of whiplash injury include the following:
- Neck pain and stiffness;
- Limited range of motion in the neck;
- Blurred vision;
- Ringing in the ears.
A key part of whiplash is the timing. Some symptoms of whiplash may begin immediately after a car accident while others take at least 12 hours to appear. In fact, some research suggests it may take several days for all whiplash symptoms to develop.
Whiplash Grading Scale
Because whiplash symptoms can have variable effects, experts created a grading system for the severity of whiplash-associated disorders. The Quebec Classification of Whiplash Associated Disorders highlights the following criteria for the varying degrees of whiplash:
- Grade 0: A person does not feel pain and does not show signs or symptoms of injury.
- Grade 1: This is the first level where a person feels pain. They may also experience:
- Stiffness when moving;
- Tenderness to being touched around the injury.
- Grade 2: At this level, a person feels pain and has physical signs of an injury. The pain can have different effects from Grade 1, including the following symptoms:
- Pain that radiates to nearby areas like your head, face, shoulder and back.
- Muscle spasms that make it hard to move or turn your head and neck.
- Physical signs of injury, including bruising, swelling and sensitivity to being touched around the injury.
- Grade 3: This level involves neurological symptoms resulting from swelling or inflammation that disrupts nerve signals traveling through the injured area to or from the brain. Symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness;
- Numbness (including loss of ability to feel hot, cold or pain) in your neck, upper back, shoulders or upper arms;
- Burning, tingling or “pins and needles” feeling (paresthesia) in your neck, upper back, shoulders or upper arms;
- Vision problems (these happen because of disruptions in reflexes that allow your eyes to automatically remain stable even when you move your head and neck);
- Hoarseness or loss of voice (dysphonia) and trouble swallowing (dysphagia).
- Dizziness or vertigo (this is known as cervical vertigo).
- Grade 4: This is the highest level of whiplash-associated disorders and includes the above-discussed symptoms but are far more severe. When neurological symptoms are more severe, that can indicate at least one neck vertebra has a fracture or is out of alignment or shifting out of place, putting pressure on your spinal cord or nearby nerves.
Whiplash is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means a healthcare provider makes the diagnosis after ruling out more serious conditions that require immediate treatment. To diagnose whiplash injury, doctors may perform a physical examination, at which time they ask questions about symptoms and the events that may have caused the whiplash. Additionally, doctors may perform a combination of diagnostic tests, such as an X-ray, MRI, CT-Scan, and/or a neurological examination.
Treatment and Recovery
Whiplash is treatable but there is no direct way to cure it. Instead, the goal of medical treatment is to allow a whiplash injury to heal as much as possible on its own while engaging in conservative care to help heal and minimize symptoms. Often, treatment for whiplash injuries consist of a multitude of options. In addition, as treatment is undertaken, some people may need care for developing chronic issues that result from the whiplash injury.
As it relates to minor whiplash, especially Grade 1 and Grade 2 discussed above, most people can manage the symptoms. That said, for those who experience symptoms following an accident, they should seek treatment. Some treatments are most helpful right after an injury, while others are used to treat the long-term effects and chronic issues that result from a whiplash injury. The most common treatments for whiplash include the following:
- Immobilization: Because whiplash can affect your spine and spinal cord, it is common for people to receive some forms of protective care immediately. An example is a cervical collar (C-collar), which has a rigid frame that holds your head and neck in alignment so your vertebrae do not press on or damage your spinal cord. That also helps keep your neck muscles from bearing the weight of your head, which might be very painful if your neck muscles are injured.
- Medications: Medications can help address many symptoms associated with whiplash injuries. The most common kinds of medications providers prescribe to treat whiplash include:
- Painkillers: These range from over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen, etc. Stronger painkillers, such as opioids, are also possible for moderate to severe pain. However, healthcare providers prescribe these very cautiously because of the risk of long-term dependence or addiction to these drugs.
- Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: These medications reduce swelling from inflamed tissue. Swelling from whiplash can lead to other symptoms if it presses on nerves and keeps signals from going to or coming from your brain.
- Muscle Relaxers: Sprained muscles can often spasm uncontrollably, causing severe pain and preventing healing from an injury. Muscle relaxers cause muscles to relax, preventing spasms and giving those muscles a chance to heal.
- Apply Heat and Cold: Experts recommend using cold packs in the first 7-10 days after an accident to decrease swelling and inflammation. After that, gentle warmth and heating can help improve blood flow to an injured area, which helps promote the healing of damaged tissues.
- Physical therapy: According to Hopkins Medicine, recovering from whiplash often involves physical therapy. This form of treatment uses guided exercises to strengthen injured areas after they heal. Physical therapy can help you regain more function in the affected area and can also help ease related symptoms like pain.
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS for short, is a therapy that delivers a mild electrical current through your skin to surface nerve endings. Your nerves use electrical signals to communicate, so using an outside electrical current at low levels can help with pain in those areas.
- Radiofrequency (“RF”) Nerve Ablations: If conservative treatment does not help, one option is to burn nerves in the affected area from sending pain signals. This is especially helpful when an injury leads to nerve damage, making the affected nerves send pain signals more than they should. This treatment uses RF energy to heat the targeted nerves and intentionally damage them, so they stop sending pain signals. This can reduce pain for weeks or months.
- Spine Surgery: In rare cases, an injury from whiplash — especially torn ligaments or fractured vertebrae — need surgery. Spine surgery can stabilize the affected areas of your spine, preventing further nerve damage and pain.
Whiplash is often a minor concern, causing pain, soreness or stiffness but with no long-term effects. When whiplash is more severe, it can cause long-term pain and complications. In the most extreme cases, whiplash can cause severe spinal injuries that can be permanently disabling or deadly.
Most people with whiplash, especially lower grades, can recover within a few days or a few weeks. More severe whiplash, however, can take several weeks or even months to heal. Whiplash lasts longest when complications lead to chronic pain or inflammation in and around your spine. The timeline for recovery from chronic complications of whiplash can vary widely, so a healthcare provider is the best source of info on what you can expect in your specific case.
Reducing the Risk of Whiplash
Unfortunately, car accidents are unpredictable so there may be no way to prevent whiplash from happening entirely. Notwithstanding a person’s susceptibility to whiplash injuries, there are several things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing whiplash in a car accident. The best things you can do to reduce your risk include:
- Adjust Your Car Seat: Putting your car seat in the right position can reduce the risk of developing whiplash.
- Adjust Your Headrest: Using headrests can also reduce the risks of developing whiplash. There are also orthopedic seat cushions that can help adjust your height or posture so the vehicle safety features, including headrests, have the most benefit. If you believe a rear-end accident is imminent and you have enough time, place your head against the headrest and face straight ahead. Having your head against a properly placed headrest keeps your head, neck and body from moving at different speeds, which can cause whiplash.
- Wear Your Seatbelt Properly: If your seat belt is not worn correctly across your shoulder or it is not snug against your body, it might not be able to stop your forward motion before your forward momentum causes whiplash;
- Drive Safely: Cautious driving can help you avoid situations where the driver behind you is unable to stop in time.
In cases where whiplash injury occurs as a result of a car accident, determining fault and negligence can be challenging. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help establish fault and liability in these cases. The damages resulting from whiplash injury may include:
- Medical Bills
- Lost Wages
- Pain and Suffering
Pre-existing conditions may affect a whiplash injury case, but if you have a pre-existing condition that is worsened by a car accident, you may still be eligible for compensation.
Your insurance coverage may vary depending on your policy. It is important to review your policy carefully to understand what is covered and what is not. Some types of insurance coverage that may be relevant, including the following:
- Liability Coverage
- Medical Payments Coverage
- Uninsured Motorist coverage
- Resident Relative Coverage
If there is no health insurance, obtaining proper medical treatment can be challenging, but an experienced personal injury lawyer can help you navigate your options and ensure that you receive the compensation you deserve.
Contact a Colorado Lawyer Who Specializes in Whiplash Injuries
If you suffered whiplash injury as a result of a car accident, it is important to reach out to a Colorado car accident injury lawyer who specializes in whiplash injuries to ensure you receive the compensation you deserve and get the treatment you need. With the right care and treatment, it is possible to recover from whiplash injury and get back to your normal life.
If you need help with a whiplash injury case, contact our personal injury lawyers for a free consultation. We are here to help you get the justice and compensation you deserve. Our car injury law firm serves Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, and Fort Collins and the surrounding areas.
Owner and Managing Attorney
Jerry Bowman, J.D., M.A., Owner and managing attorney of Bowman Law LLC, takes his responsibility to the legal profession seriously and dedicates his time and effort to providing quality and competent legal representation to clients in Denver and throughout all of Colorado. He holds an MA in Political Science from Wayne State University and earned his law degree in two and a half years from Michigan State University College of Law.