What Exactly is a Whiplash Injury?

I have been told that I have a whiplash injury. What exactly does that mean?

The term whiplash injury is actually not at all a medical term. It is jargon for neck strain or neck strain caused by sudden extension and flexion of the neck; the neck in essence “whips” back and forth, giving rise to the non-medical term “whiplash”.

This category of subjective injury is commonly associated with automobile accidents. (A subjective injury is generally one which cannot be confirmed by an x-ray, whereas an objective injury usually can.) “Whiplash” can include injury to the cervical (neck) muscles, ligaments, nerve roots, vertebral joints and even the cervical discs. The term generally is not used to diagnose more serious objective injuries to the neck such as a fracture or a herniated disc.

Symptoms of a whiplash injury might present themselves immediately or a few hours or even days after the actual injury (just like a person who exercises strenuously may not feel stiff and sore until the next day). The symptoms might range from a mild headache to dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), stiffness, a burning or “pins and needles” sensation limited to the neck area or radiating into the shoulder as well. It might include back pain. In more serious neck sprains, the injured person might experience cognitive difficulties such as impaired concentration, nervousness or agitation, sleep disturbance, fatigue or even depression.

An injured person with a mild whiplash injury might choose to treat him or herself with over-the-counter pain medication and rest. Others with more serious strains or sprains might see a doctor for prescription medication, including muscle relaxants and/or pain medication. The treating physician might also prescribe exercise or physical therapy. The expected outcome for a whiplash injury is usually good. Head and neck pain can clear up within a few days or weeks, with or without formal medical attention.

Whiplash injuries are commonly associated with automobile accidents, but there really can be any number of causes for a neck strain or sprain. This type of injury is probably the most common one that people harmed in accidents complain of.

If you were diagnosed with a whiplash injury by a doctor, you may wish to have a follow-up conversation with him or her. Since the term “whiplash injury” encompasses such a wide range of injury severities, you may wish to ask your doctor for a more exact diagnosis. Not only will you be more accurately informed, but you will be able to have a more productive conversation with your insurance company if necessary.

This article is written for informational purposes and is not intended to take the place of competent local legal counsel. It is also not intended to prevent, diagnose or treat any injury.

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