What Is Whiplash? Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed

Whiplash is a type of neck injury that occurs when an incident — such as a motor vehicle collision —causes your head to forcibly move forward and back, or vice versa, similar to the cracking of a whip.

The sudden motion can cause injury to the muscles, tendons, nerves, and discs of your neck. Depending on how serious these injuries are, symptoms of whiplash can be mild to severe.

Signs and Symptoms of Whiplash

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), symptoms such as neck pain can start anytime from right after the injury to several days after the incident. Symptoms can get better in a few weeks or remain chronic, leading to persistent pain and related complications.

Whiplash can cause any of a constellation of symptoms that can look like those of other conditions. Doctors often refer to these symptoms as whiplash-associated disorders (WAD).

Some common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • Neck stiffness that makes it difficult to turn your head
  • Neck pain that may get worse with movement
  • Headaches that often start at the base of your skull
  • Dizziness
  • Tenderness or pain in your shoulders or back
  • Tingling, numbness, or pain in your arm or hand
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sudden mood changes such as irritability, anxiety, nervousness, or depression
  • Problems with memory or concentration
  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing in the ears

If you experience any of these symptoms after an accident or trauma, see your doctor right away for an evaluation.

Causes and Risk Factors of Whiplash

Automobile accidents are a prime cause of whiplash — particularly those involving a rear-end collision. But other incidents that snap your head in a forward or backward motion can also lead to this type of neck injury. Whiplash can also be caused by the following:

  • Sports injuries, especially from contact or high-impact sports such as karate, football, boxing, gymnastics, or skiing
  • Amusement park rides, such as a roller coaster, which can jerk your head quickly backward and forward
  • Physical assault, such as punching or shaking. (This type of injury is commonly seen in shaken baby syndrome.)
  • A fall
It’s important to keep in mind that the incident that causes the whiplash injury doesn’t have to involve a great amount of speed or force. For example, many whiplash injuries occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents that happen at speeds as low as 5 to 10 mph, according to Rush University Medical Center.

And an article published in October 2016 in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy notes that whiplash injuries that result from low-speed car crashes “continue to be a significant cause of neck pain and disability in the general population.”

The severity of the whiplash injury isn’t necessarily determined by the speed of the vehicle, either. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can still sustain a serious injury even if the cars were moving slowly when they collided.

That said, certain factors, such as your age, sex, and medical history — for example, arthritis in your neck — can affect the severity of your whiplash symptoms. According to Rush University Medical Center, older people tend to have decreased muscle flexibility and strength and their discs and ligaments may not be as elastic, which means their neck could sustain more damage than a younger person’s when it is forcibly moved back and forth.

Using seatbelts (and for kids, the correct child safety seat) properly is another factor that can play a role in how serious your whiplash injury may be.

How Is Whiplash Diagnosed?

To diagnose whiplash, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and the event that caused the injury. They will do a physical examination that will probably involve asking you to perform simple tasks to test a range of motion in your neck and shoulders. Your doctor may also try to determine the location and severity of your pain and look for tenderness in your neck, shoulders, and back; check your reflexes; and evaluate the strength and sensation in your limbs. They may also order scans, including:

  • X-ray Your doctor may order X-ray imaging right after your injury if they suspect you may have a fracture or damage to the spine, according to the North American Spine Society (NASS). X-rays may also be used in patients whose symptoms don’t improve several weeks after the injury.

  • MRI Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, may be used to look for injury to the spinal cord or discs.
  • CT scan A computerized tomography, or CT scan, can show detailed images of your bones and muscles, and can help doctors diagnose neck pain.

Prognosis of Whiplash

Many people with whiplash get better within a few months, but some individuals may experience chronic pain for several months or longer, according to NINDS.

Another article in Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy notes that approximately half of the people who sustain a whiplash injury recover within three months, while the rest experience persistent symptoms for years, with a “substantive portion” of these individuals going on to live with symptoms that are moderate to severe enough to significantly impact their lives.

While there’s no way to tell how well someone may recover from whiplash, you may be more likely to experience chronic symptoms such as neck pain after an injury that is more severe. Individual risk factors (such as age or previous history of back or neck injuries) prior to the injury can play a role in your recovery, according to StatPearls.

Duration of Whiplash

Many people with whiplash recover within a few weeks to a few months; others can experience chronic and long-lasting symptoms like persistent pain, even after receiving treatment such as pain medication and physical therapy.

Treatment and Medication Options for Whiplash

Depending on the severity of your neck injury, your doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Rest
  • Ice or heat
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medications to treat pain and inflammation
  • Cervical collar
  • Stretching exercises and physical therapy to increase range of motion
Your doctor may initially advise you to take pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medication along with ice or heat to relieve muscle tension. They may also recommend that you wear a neck collar for two or three weeks after your injury, according to NINDS.

The Mayo Clinic notes, however, that some studies have shown that immobilizing the neck for prolonged periods of time may actually decrease muscle strength and interfere with recovery.

For this reason, some doctors may recommend using it only if necessary for a few days after the injury.
While most treatments have been shown to be moderately effective when used alone, research suggests that combining treatments (such as taking analgesics and applying heat or cold) may be particularly and consistently helpful.

Treatment of whiplash in the first few weeks and months typically includes physical therapy, particularly strength training to shore up muscles to hold the neck in proper positions and to improve range of motion.

Medication Options

Treatment for whiplash can include medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to treat pain and inflammation, as well as antidepressants and muscle relaxants.

Alternative and Complementary Therapies

You may find pain relief through alternative therapies, including chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which involves using low-voltage currents on the skin to relieve pain in an affected area. Mind-body techniques such as tai chi, qigong, and yoga may also help ease pain and stiffness in people with whiplash injury.

But whatever alternative or complementary therapy you may consider, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any program or technique.

Prevention of Whiplash

Since motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of whiplash, adhering to safe driving practices, including using seatbelts properly, not driving while distracted, and adjusting your headrest to the correct height, may help prevent injury.

Complications of Whiplash

While many people fully recover within three months of their injury, others may experience ongoing neck pain and headaches for several months or even years.

Neck pain is the most common chronic symptom, but people may also experience persistent headaches and dizziness, according to StatPearls.

Chronic pain and other ongoing symptoms can interfere with work and physical function and may impact your lifestyle and economic health.

Research and Statistics: How Common Is Whiplash?

Whiplash injuries are thought to affect about 0.3 percent, or nearly 1 million people, in the United States.

Women may be more susceptible to whiplash than men and, according to StatPearls, may account for as many as two-thirds of people with whiplash.

Related Conditions and Causes of Whiplash

Whiplash-associated disorders, or WAD, have been linked to a range of physiological and psychological conditions. According to Physiopedia, WAD can cause motor and sensory function problems, as well as psychological distress.

Some conditions linked to whiplash include:

  • Depression Pain can affect your mood and emotions, and depression has been associated with common symptoms of whiplash such as neck pain, dizziness, numbness or tingling in the arms and hands, and vision problems, according to Physiopedia.

  • Cognitive problems People with whiplash can experience trouble with concentration or memory due to pain, medication side effects, or a mild brain injury, according to NASS.

  • Changes in muscle and motor function Whiplash has been associated with neuromuscular changes such as loss of balance, loss of muscle strength, impaired movement, and loss of eye movement control, according to a study published in the Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) While PTSD has commonly been associated with severe injuries following a car accident, there is also evidence that it may be present in people who experience less severe road accidents involving whiplash injuries, according to the Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy. 

Resources We Love

North American Spine Society

This organization comprises healthcare professionals who specialize in the care and treatment of the spine. They offer a detailed overview of whiplash injuries, from facts about the anatomy of the spine to symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of the condition.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

This site offers good, basic facts about neck sprain and features links to other related information pages on cervical fracture (broken neck), neck pain, and more, all from the perspective of orthopedic surgeons.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

This National Institutes of Health page gives a good basic rundown of whiplash symptoms and also provides links to additional information on patient organizations, publications, and clinical trials.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Whiplash. Mayo Clinic. February 5, 2020.

Whiplash (Neck Strain, Neck Sprain). Cleveland Clinic. October 7, 2020.

Whiplash Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. March 27, 2019.

Bragg K, Varacallo M. Cervical Sprain. StatPearls. June 28, 2020.

Jull G. Whiplash Continues Its Challenge. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. September 30, 2016.

5 Facts About Whiplash. Rush University Medical Center. June 27, 2014.

Whiplash and Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAS). North American Spine Society.

Whiplash Associated Disorders. Physiopedia.

Sterling M. Whiplash-Associated Disorder: Musculoskeletal Pain and Related Clinical Findings. Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy. November 2011.

Stemper B, Corner B. Whiplash-Associated Disorders: Occupant Kinematics and Neck Morphology. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. October 2016.


Whiplash Injury. Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Whiplash Injury. Cedars Sinai.

Show Less