The human neck is designed to move. IT thrives on movement. Unfortunately, when too much movement is applied to the neck at a quick speed, injury may result- not unlike an ankle sprain. Whiplash is defined as a sudden acceleration and then deceleration (slowing down) of the head in space, when a sudden force is applied to the neck. This may result from a sports injury, slipping, falling or most often a car accident. Sudden movement applied to the neck, results in tissue injury. This may include muscle, ligament, joints, disc and more. The injury is often accompanied by pain, swelling, inflammation and muscle guarding, resulting in a straight, stiff neck. 

Patients often complain of common symptom such as pain, pins and needles, headache, dizziness, stiffness and difficulty moving their neck. Studies show that most of these symptoms are short lived and will resolve in a few days or weeks. 

The good news is that tissues heal- even after car accidents. Some tissues, like muscle, may heal in a few weeks, while other tissues such as joints, disc and ligaments may take a few months to heal. For tissues to heal, they need adequate blood supply, nutrition and oxygen. Since most of the spinal joints have limited blood supply, movement is essential, especially early on, to help tissues heal. Physical therapists utilize movement-based approaches to assist in the healing process. 

Patients are often referred to physical therapy for consultation to help patients recover from the car accident. The physical therapist will perform a thorough interview and physical examination and then design a treatment plan based on the examination findings which may include:

  • Advice, education, motivation and encouragement
  • Active movement/exercise
  • Passive movements- spinal mobilization and/or manipulation
  • Modalities as indicated

Key Points to Remember:

  • The injury from the car accident is real, even if the imaging tests come back as normal. The good news is that every day removed from the accident is a step closer to healing. Pain following car accidents are real and can be controlled.

Get yourself healthy as soon as possible after the injury:

  • Physical: Perform exercise and movement to help increase blood flow and oxygen to the injured tissues and avoid secondary problems from not moving- such as muscle shortening. Focus on cardiovascular exercise to get your heart rate up, which enhances blood flow. Examples would be walking, elliptical, biking, swimming, etc.
  • Emotional: Get over it! (in a nice way). Research clearly shows that resentment, anger, frustration and fear all contribute to persistent pain after car accidents. The nerves in and around the injured tissues flare up. In stressful situations, higher amounts of stress-producing chemicals such as adrenalin can further irritate nerves. As mentioned above, physical avtivity pumps fresh oxygen and blood around the injured tissues. This, along with healthy thoughts, will decrease the pain and nerve sensistity. 

*For more information- ask your physical therapist. This is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional. 

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