Whiplash Injuries: Symptoms, Lawyers, and How to File a Successful Claim

Common symptoms and causes of whiplash, in car accidents and other kinds of injury cases.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

The term "whiplash" is used to describe a range of neck injuries—especially soft tissue damage to the neck—common in many rear-end auto collisions.

Because whiplash is a soft-tissue injury, it can be difficult to detect and treat even when you're experiencing significant pain and other symptoms. As a result, insurance companies are sometimes reluctant to compensate victims appropriately for whiplash injuries.

That means it's vital to:

  • seek medical care for whiplash right away,
  • file an insurance claim as quickly as possible (we'll talk below about whether to go through your own insurance company or the other driver's), gather all of your medical records and any other evidence that may support your claim, and
  • decide if it would be helpful to consult with or hire an attorney to assist with your claim and a possible personal injury lawsuit.

This article will give you an overview of how to approach the insurance claims process, from the immediate aftermath of your accident through settlement discussions and potential litigation.

What Is Whiplash?

When a car is rear-ended, the impact propels the driver's and passengers' bodies forward while their heads stay in place, exposing the neck to sudden, extreme extension and flexion that follows a whip-like motion. Injuries to the neck that result from this extreme snapping or jerking are commonly called whiplash.

What you might not know is that personal injury attorneys avoid using the word "whiplash." In recent years the word has come to be associated with fake or exaggerated personal injury claims, conjuring images of lawyers handing neck braces to clients before their court appearances.

Whiplash-type injuries are now commonly referred to by more technical names like:

  • "hyperextension" or "hyperflexion injury"
  • "myofascial injury"
  • "neck sprain" or "strain," and
  • "cervical strain" or "sprain."

It's a good idea to use these specific medical terms, and not "whiplash," in your personal injury action or insurance claim. (We will, however, continue to use the term in this article for simplicity.)

Whiplash Causes

Again, whiplash and neck injuries are commonly associated with rear-end car accidents, where the occupants of the front vehicle are unprepared for impact. But whiplash injuries have other causes, too, including:

  • other kinds of vehicle accidents
  • injuries sustained in contact sports like football, hockey, and soccer
  • intentional assaults that produce head trauma (a hard shove from behind, for example)
  • skiing and snowboarding accidents
  • repetitive stress injuries at work
  • child abuse (shaken baby syndrome, for example), and
  • slip and fall accidents in stores and homes or on poorly maintained sidewalks.

It's a common misconception that only high speed, serious collisions result in whiplash-type injuries. In actuality, whiplash is commonly caused by low speed, low impact, rear-end automobile collisions.

The causes of whiplash are complex and relate to a range of factors beyond just the force of impact. These factors include:

  • the position of the driver or passenger's head at the time of impact
  • the person's seating position, height, and gender
  • the position of seat and head restraints, and
  • the relative size and weight of the vehicles involved in the accident.

Another misconception is that, because it involves soft tissue, whiplash is minor and not all that serious of an injury. But medical evidence suggests that soft tissue injuries can be significant and can have long-term effects if left untreated. That's why it's important to be checked out by a doctor if you've been involved in any type of car accident.

Whiplash Symptoms

After a car accident or other mishap, signs of whiplash may include:

  • neck pain and stiffness
  • decreased range of motion
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • shoulder, arm, or back pain
  • unusual sensations (e.g., burning, prickling, tingling in arms)
  • sleep disturbance, fatigue, or trouble concentrating, and
  • other cognitive or psychological difficulties.

Remember that it might take several days before whiplash symptoms appear. So, if you or a loved one has been in a car crash or other kind of accident, keep a close eye on possible signs of whiplash injury.

What You Should Do After Suffering a Whiplash Injury in a Car Accident

The aftermath of a car accident can be a challenging time, especially if you've been injured. Your highest priority should be making sure that you receive necessary medical care for your injuries. You should also take steps to ensure that you'll be compensated for your injuries and other losses caused by the accident.

Seek Medical Attention

First things first. Neck injuries can have serious consequences and lead to a wide range of health problems if left untreated, so seek medical attention following an accident. If your doctor or emergency room physician sends you home after the accident, seek immediate medical attention if you develop new symptoms or experience persistent whiplash symptoms.

You should carefully follow your doctor's instructions for treating your injury. Doing so will give you the best chance to make a full recovery. It will also be helpful during the claim process and if you decide to file a lawsuit. Following the advice of your doctor will show that you suffered a significant injury and did everything you could to minimize its effect on your health and well-being.

File an Insurance Claim as Soon as Possible

You should file an insurance claim as quickly as you can after the accident. Here's what to keep in mind as you get the process started.

Should you file your claim with your own insurance company, or with the other driver's?

This will depend on factors including the circumstances of the accident and your contract with your insurer.

When it's fairly clear that the other driver is at fault for your car accident—which will generally be the case when you're rear-ended—there's a good chance you'll be making your injury claim with their insurance company, not your own. Of course, there are exceptions, especially if you live in a no-fault car insurance state.

Keep in mind that, regardless of whether or not you file a claim with them, you are required to tell your insurance company about any accident that might trigger your own coverage.

Do you have to speak with the other driver's insurance company?

You're typically under no legal obligation to speak with the other driver's insurance company directly. There are good reasons not to do so—the at-fault driver's insurance carrier will be looking for reasons to shift blame to you, or to minimize the extent of your injuries. They may also ask you to give a recorded statement, and could then use any mistakes or minor inconsistencies in what you tell them to dispute or minimize your claim. Your own insurance company (or lawyer, if you get one) can often handle interactions with the other driver's insurance carrier, or give you advice on how to proceed. If you're filing a claim directly with the other driver's insurance company, you do need to provide them with access to relevant medical records and other information so they can properly investigate and process your claim. But it's still important to watch what you say.

What should you say when you're filing your initial claim?

You only have to provide the key facts. It's okay at this stage not to know everything you'll eventually use to support your whiplash claim, and you shouldn't speculate about your medical condition or offer details about how you're feeling. Instead, you can provide general information—for example, that you've hurt your neck and back, and have received or plan to seek medical treatment.

Should you be as careful talking to your own insurance company as you are with the other driver's?

You don't usually have to talk to the other driver's insurance carrier, but your contract with your own insurer requires you to cooperate in at least some ways with their investigation. Even so, you should keep in mind that your insurance company is not working for you—they are using what you tell them to evaluate and potentially reduce the value of your claim. So you should still stick to the facts and rely on a doctor's evaluation and advice when discussing your medical condition.

Finally, remember that you're better off if you have a cooperative approach with the insurance company, not a confrontational one. A lawyer may be able to help you strike the balance between protecting your interests and providing the information necessary for the claims process.

Gather Evidence for Your Whiplash Claim

To make a successful insurance claim, you'll need to provide the insurance company with evidence detailing your injuries and treatment. Whiplash is a soft-tissue injury, so it doesn't show up on X-rays. That means it might take more documentation to demonstrate the existence and severity of your whiplash injury.

You should keep a detailed record of the accident, your symptoms, the course of treatment prescribed by your doctor, and all of your medical expenses. That includes copies of:

  • records of any medical treatment you received immediately following the accident at the scene or at the hospital
  • records of any visits you've made to doctors, physical therapists, or other healthcare providers who diagnosed or treated your injuries, and
  • pharmacy records or other documentation of prescriptions related to your injury.

If you need records from a hospital or other large healthcare provider you might need to find out who handles those requests—for example, the billing or records department. With smaller providers, the request might be more straightforward.

In addition to records of your medical treatment and expenses, you can collect and use a variety of other evidence. The police report, records of the extent of your vehicle damage and repairs, and even your own diary of how the accident has affected your day-to-day life can help support your whiplash claim.

To learn more about gathering evidence to help with your case, read about preserving evidence after a personal injury accident.

What If Your Whiplash Symptoms Are Delayed?

Because of the stress and physical discomfort caused by even a minor car accident, you might be hurt but not realize the severity of your injury right away. Even if you feel okay, or think you only have minor aches and pains, the safest approach for your health is to get examined by a doctor. Seeing a doctor as soon as you can will also start the record of medical treatment that will be important if you make a whiplash claim or file a lawsuit.

The possibility that your symptoms will be delayed—or take time for you to notice—is one reason you should be careful about how you communicate with the insurance company (especially when dealing with the other driver's insurer). Even if you've been seriously hurt, statements you made before your symptoms worsened could be used against you in the claims process or a lawsuit.

You should also resist any attempt by the insurance company to rush you into settling. You might get a quick offer of money in exchange for releasing (giving up) any further claims. But you need to know the extent of any injuries—and the extent of their financial impact—before you can decide if a settlement offer is reasonable.

That doesn't mean you have to have already made a full recovery before settling. But it does mean you should either have recovered or have a clear understanding from your doctors of your prognosis and any treatment you'll continue to need in the future. Doctors and lawyers use the technical term "maximum medical improvement," or MMI, to describe the point when an accident victim's condition has stabilized, and the long-term health effects of the accident are understood.

Remember that once you've accepted a settlement and signed a release, your legal options are very limited even if your symptoms worsen later. So it's important to take your time and base your decision on good medical and legal advice. It can be helpful to consult with an attorney if you have a complicated claim or lasting medical issues caused by your accident. (See below for more on the topic of working with a lawyer.)

How Do Whiplash Injury Claims Work?

The insurance company won't begin its work until you file your claim. It's important to do so promptly, both because it means you'll be on the road toward settlement, and because you'll have more time to decide if you need to file a lawsuit. States have statutes of limitations for personal injury cases, and these laws set lawsuit filing deadlines using the day of the accident as the starting point.

The length and thoroughness of an insurance company's investigation depends on how serious the accident was and if there are any significant disputes about what happened. Some accident investigations—for example, after crashes with no injuries where the other driver admits fault—are completed over the phone in just a few days. Whiplash claims—even where it's clear who was at fault—tend to take longer because the insurance company will usually spend more time gathering and evaluating evidence. They'll want to examine your medical records to determine the extent and financial costs of your injury. They're also likely to examine the police report and seek statements from you, other people involved in the accident, and witnesses, in order to figure out how severe the accident was and who was responsible.

If you're confused by the insurance claim process, or just want to make sure you're not jeopardizing your settlement, it might make sense to hire—or at least consult—an attorney.

How Will the Insurance Company Determine the Value of Your Whiplash Claim?

The insurance company will examine the evidence of your accident and your whiplash injury and come up with a proposed settlement amount. The baseline amount is determined by your economic losses—not only the costs of treating your injury, but also factors like money you lost because you were unable to work.

Most often, insurers will then use a "multiplier" to calculate what they think they owe you for the less-tangible consequences of your injury—for example, your pain and suffering, and the personal or family activities you missed because you were hurt. Soft-tissue injuries like whiplash, despite the pain they cause, aren't considered as serious as, for example, damage to vertebrae or the discs of the spine. That means the insurance company will use a lower multiplier for a whiplash claim.

If you think a settlement offer is reasonable, you can, of course, accept it. But if you think the insurance company has underestimated your medical expenses, or downplayed the consequences of your injury, you might want to negotiate for a higher settlement. Here's another area where the advice or involvement of an attorney can be helpful.

What If Your Whiplash Claim Is Denied?

If the insurance company denies your whiplash claim entirely, it's important to make sure they provide you with a written explanation of the specific reasons for their decision. That will allow you to decide how to respond.

Don't treat a denial as the end of the claims process—find out the insurance company's process for appealing their initial decision. You might be able to address their concerns by providing additional evidence.

But an insurance company could be denying your claim for other reasons—for example, because they don't believe you were really injured at all, or because of a technical issue with your coverage or the coverage of the at-fault driver.

If an insurance company denies your claim, especially in more complicated cases, your best bet could be getting help from an attorney.

Should You Hire an Attorney for Your Whiplash Claim?

You might be comfortable handling the claims process yourself. But if you think you need help gathering evidence, or communicating with the insurance company about a settlement offer or a denial of your claim, it could make sense to hire an attorney.

You might also want to consult with or hire an attorney if you're considering filing a lawsuit. A lawsuit can be an expensive, complicated, and time-consuming undertaking. So you'll have to decide if legal action is the right approach by examining the complexity of your case, the severity and costs of your injuries, and the details of the insurance company's settlement offer.

An attorney should help you with that evaluation and can represent you in court if you do decide to sue. And the fact of the matter is that an insurance company might take your claim more seriously if you have a lawyer.

Taking the Next Steps in Your Whiplash Claim

If you're considering handling your own whiplash claim, it's important to make sure you fully understand the process. Remember that you can decide at any stage to consult with an attorney or hire one to represent you. If you think you'd benefit from the assistance of a legal professional, focus on finding the right lawyer for you and your case. You can use the features on this page to connect with an injury lawyer near you.

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