What Exactly is Whiplash and How Do I Know if I Need to See a Doctor?

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Interventional Pain Management Specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang with Atlantic Spine Center explains common injury and offers tips about signs of trouble.

Dr. Kaliq Chang

Bones in the spine, ligaments, muscles, nerves, vertebral discs and other tissues of the neck can all be injured from whiplash, when someone’s head is quickly and forcefully thrust backward and forward.

Whiplash may be a literal pain in the neck, but this common injury is no run-of-the-mill condition. That’s why whiplash often requires a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment advice, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.

An estimated 120,000 cases of whiplash occur in the United States every year, usually resulting from a rear-end auto accident but also from sports accidents or other types of trauma. Whiplash gets its catchy name from the whip-like, rapid back-and-forth neck movement that triggers the injury, which can also have significant and lingering effects on the spine.

“Bones in the spine, ligaments, muscles, nerves, vertebral discs and other tissues of the neck can all be injured from whiplash, when someone’s head is quickly and forcefully thrust backward and forward,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “Ruling out fractures or other tissue damage that prompts symptoms is a serious matter.”

Whiplash symptoms

Some people who suffer whiplash don’t experience immediate symptoms, Dr. Chang says. But usually, symptoms develop within 24 hours and can include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Headaches that usually start at the base of the skill
  • Worse neck pain when the neck is moved
  • Less range of motion in the neck
  • Pain or tenderness of the shoulders, upper back or arms
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

“Whiplash symptoms are no joke,” Dr. Chang says. “In all but the most minor cases of whiplash, symptoms can make it difficult to do normal activities without pain. That’s why a proper diagnosis, often with an MRI, and prompt treatment are crucial.”

When to see a doctor

As Dr. Chang says, seeing a doctor for whiplash is necessary in all except minor cases. Often, the car accident, sports injury or other traumatic injury that caused your whiplash will be followed by a trip to the hospital or a doctor’s office anyway.

“When you’re being examined, make sure you clearly explain how severe your neck pain is, what movements make it worse, and any neck pain you’ve experienced in the past,” Dr. Chang advises. “Offering a detailed explanation of your symptoms and history will help guide your doctor’s approach to imaging tests and other ways of assessing your condition.”

Treating whiplash often goes beyond the soft foam cervical collars that were once the standard therapy, Dr. Chang says, since they’re now used less often or for shorter periods. That’s because recent research suggests that keeping the neck immobile for long periods actually slows healing.

Other whiplash treatments might include applying ice or heat; taking over-the-counter or prescription painkillers or muscle relaxants; or receiving injections of a numbing medication into painful tissues. Physical therapy is often an important part of whiplash recovery as well, Dr. Chang notes.

“The goal is to restore the range of motion in your neck and upper body so you can move again with no pain,” Dr. Chang explains. “Whiplash can be much more than a pain in the neck when it comes to recovering, but fortunately, nearly everyone who experiences this injury will recover fully.”

Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC. http://www.atlanticspinecenter.com, http://www.atlanticspinecenter.nyc

Kaliq Chang, MD, is an interventional pain management specialist, double board-certified in interventional pain management and anesthesiology, at Atlantic Spine Center.

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