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Symptoms and Signs of Whiplash

Doctor's Notes on Whiplash

Whiplash is a term used to describe neck pain due to an injury to the ligaments, tendons and/or muscles of the neck. Other medical terms for whiplash are cervical strain or sprain, flexion-extension neck injury and cervical hyperextension injury. Signs and symptoms include tenderness along the back and shoulders, neck swelling, neck muscle spasms, difficulty and/or pain when flexing, extending or rotating the head, headache, fatigue, sleep disturbances, jaw tightness, difficult chewing, vision disturbances and tinnitus.

The most frequent cause of whiplash is a car accident, even if you are wearing a seatbelt. Other causes are contact sports, assaults, blow to the head from a falling object, for example. Sudden strains from changes in direction (like roller coasters, bicycle accidents) or repetitive stress like holding a phone against your head can cause whiplash. Child abuse (shaking a child) may cause whiplash in children.

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Whiplash Symptoms

The symptoms of whiplash generally include some degree of neck pain and muscle stiffness. Depending on the severity of the injury, signs and symptoms may also include:

  • Tenderness along the back of the neck and shoulders
  • Neck swelling
  • Muscle spasms in the posterior cervical spine (back of the neck), anterior cervical spine (front of the neck), or in the trapezius muscles (back of the shoulders)
  • Difficulty flexing, extending, or rotating the head
  • Headache, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and/or fatigue
  • Jaw tightness or difficulty chewing
  • Severe cases of whiplash may also cause vision disturbance, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and other signs of nerve irritation

Whiplash Causes

The most frequent cause of whiplash is a car accident. The speed of the cars involved in the accident or the amount of physical damage to the car may not relate to the intensity of neck injury; speeds as low as 15 miles per hour can produce enough energy to cause whiplash in occupants, even when they wear seat belts.

  • Other common causes of whiplash include contact sport injuries and blows to the head from a falling object or being assaulted.
  • Strains of the neck from sudden changes in direction, for example, roller coasters, minor bicycle accidents, or slips and falls can all cause whiplash.
  • Repetitive stress injuries or chronic strain involving the neck (such as using the neck to hold the telephone) are common, non-acute causes.
  • Child abuse, particularly the shaking of a child, can also result in this injury as well as in more serious injuries to the child's brain or spinal cord.

Neck Pain Causes and Treatment for Relief Slideshow

Neck Pain Causes and Treatment for Relief Slideshow

You use your neck more than you think. Every time you drive, look over your shoulder, or talk to a group of people, your neck goes to work, bending your head anywhere you need to face. While you normally don’t notice your neck in action, when it is in pain, your neck becomes a very noticeable body part.

The question of why you experience neck pain can have a variety of answers. It could be the way you sit at work, how you sleep, or the natural degeneration of aging. We’ve gathered some of the most common causes of neck pain in the following article, along with treatments that can offer pain relief when you need it most.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.