Physical Therapy: Recovering from whiplash injury

Traffic collisions are the most common cause of painful and frustrating whiplash injuries.

Whiplash injuries are a common cause of neck pain and disability reported to physiotherapists. According to the most recent statistics provided by ICBC (, 47,870 traffic collisions were reported in British Columbia in 2007.

Unfortunately, it’s these collisions that are the most common cause of this painful and frustrating condition.

Understanding how whiplash differs from other neck injuries is important in helping you to manage your injury.

Whiplash is defined by a rapid acceleration then deceleration force on the neck, occurring at speeds too fast for the neck muscles to support.

As a result, multiple joints in the neck are placed under strain, rather than just the one joint in a regular neck injury.

The resulting trauma is most often to the soft tissue such as the ligaments and deep muscles that support these joints.

The spine in the neck can be divided up into seven vertebrae. All these vertebrae have a cartilage disc separating them, except for the top two.

It’s these top two vertebrae that often cause a large amount of the ongoing symptoms of whiplash. They are responsible for the majority of rotation that your neck can do. For example, pain and stiffness when turning to head check behind you while driving is a very common complaint after whiplash.

The joints that these two vertebrae form with the head above and the third vertebrae below, also play a large role in balance and stable vision.

This is because these joints are constantly sending messages to the brain informing it of the heads position and orientation. Damage to these joints can therefore result in symptoms of dizziness, unsteadiness, unstable vision and headaches.

Whiplash is a condition with a high rate of recovery, however; due to the varied nature of a whiplash injury between individuals, it is very tough to give an estimate of recovery time and can be anywhere from a week to a year or more.

The most positive finding of resent research into whiplash is that those who attempt to resume their normal daily activities have a better recovery than those who significantly reduce their activity for a period of time. This is an important piece of advice in helping you to manage your injury but activities still need to avoid unnecessary strain in order to promote healing. Heavy or repetitive lifting and prolonged slouched or bent postures are going to cause unnecessary aggravation to your injury and slow healing.

Be aware of your posture—sit or stand up tall, don’t let your head slouch in front of your shoulders and be sure to change positions frequently. Also, take care with lifting—hold objects close to your body rather than reaching away from you, causing more strain on your neck and back.

Another important finding of recent whiplash research is the need to retrain and strengthen the deep muscles that support the spine and head in it’s optimal posture.

These exercises are best guided by your physiotherapist, as they are very specific movements required to deactivate overused muscles and facilitate those deep postural stabilizing muscles.

Exercises are then progressed to be more general and allow you to focus more on self-management as your pain and dysfunction is more under control.

All neck and back injuries resulting from a motor vehicle accident should be reported to your doctor in order to screen for more severe injuries such as spinal fractures.


Nick Black is a registered physiotherapist at Sun City Physiotherapy Winfield.

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