Whiplash is an injury that occurs to the spine, especially the neck, with sudden rapid movement. This is usually after a car accident, but can occur with collisions in sport or with a blow to the head or body.
Often the pain does not start until a few hours after the incident. The pain often then continues to escalate over the next few days. Initially you may experience neck pain and stiffness. This extends to all the muscles around the neck, often going into the front of the neck and around the throat, as well as the back of the neck. A bad headache will often set in. Vision can be affected and people often feel a “bit out if it”. You may experience pins and needles into the face or arms. The pain may often be accompanied by nausea. At all times the injury should be checked medically with your GP or at the hospital. A decision will then be made as to whether an x-ray or MRI is indicated. This will check there is no bone damage.
In the first few days good, strong medication will help control the pain and reduce the muscle spasm. A hot pack is usually best to use, keeping it on as much as you can, as this will help to relax the muscles further. Gentle pain-free movement will help to keep the joints from stiffening. Physiotherapy at this time releases tight muscles and mobilises joints to get them moving again.
The concern is for the few cases that continue for longer than a month. Very often people continue to feel out of it and struggle to look around or move their head without feeling dizzy. In this case the vestibulo-oculomotor control is often still a problem. This means the wiring between your movement, vision and balance, which are all closely interconnected, remains out of whack. When this happens your neck muscles will also tighten up and your neck pain and headaches will often increase. You can correct this with careful exercise retraining, teaching your brain how to work each of these components independently and together, thus reducing your symptoms, including the dizziness and pain.
Careful stability exercises for the neck are also essential – these look to switch on the deep muscles that support the neck and spine and thus reduce pain. These muscles are switched off by pain. The outer muscles of the neck overwork and spasm – but this is not their normal role. Normally the outer muscles would come on to turn your head, lift your arm etc – they are not designed to be on all the time. In time they become fatigued and ache. If the outer muscles are to stop overworking we have to learn to switch on the deep muscles. Physiotherapy rehabilitation helps to retrain all of the above processes, each of which contributes to long term ongoing neck pain – should you have ongoing symptoms after a neck injury please feel free to contact our Physiologix staff (based at the Gap Health and Racquet club) to find out how you can help yourself. Call (07) 3511 1112, or email us from our website www.physiologix.com.au