Whiplash Injuries: The Basics

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

Updated By , J.D.
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  • What Is Whiplash?

    The term "whiplash" is used to describe a range of neck injuries -- particularly soft tissue damage to the neck -- common in many rear-end car accidents. 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. So injuries to the neck that result from this extreme snapping or jerking are commonly called whiplash.

    Note: Personal injury attorneys avoid using the word "whiplash." In recent years the word "whiplash" has come to be associated with fake or exaggerated personal injury claims -- scaring up images of lawyers handing neck braces to clients before their court appearances. So it's a good idea to avoid using the word in your personal injury action or insurance claim. Whiplash-type injuries are now commonly referred to by more technical names like hyperextension/hyperflexion injury, myofascial injury, neck sprain or strain, and cervical strain or sprain.

    Whiplash Causes

    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 can result from other types of incidents too, including:

    • car and truck accidents that don't involve rear-end impact
    • 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.

    A quick note on misconceptions about whiplash causes: 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 about whiplash is that, because it involves soft tissue, whiplash is minor and not all that serious of an injury. However, medical evidence suggests that soft tissue injuries can be serious and can have long-term effects if left untreated. This is why it's important to be checked out by a doctor if you have been involved in any type of car accident.

    Whiplash Symptoms

    Whether they come about after a car accident or other type of mishap, signs of a whiplash or neck injury 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 may 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.

    Getting Help With Whiplash or Neck Injury

    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 you are sent home by your doctor or emergency room physician following the accident, seek immediate medical attention if you develop new symptoms or experience persistent whiplash symptoms.

    Prepare a Personal Injury Lawsuit or Insurance Claim

    If you are considering making a personal injury claim for your accident and whiplash injuries, it's important that you be well-prepared. Keep a detailed record of the accident, your symptoms, and your medical treatment and expenses. To learn more about gathering evidence to help with your case, read Nolo's article Personal Injury Accidents: Preserve Evidence. Before negotiating with an insurance company or filing a personal injury lawsuit, read Nolo's article Dealing With Your Insurance Company FAQ.

    For More Information

    To find out how to build your best case and win your personal injury claim, see How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).

    If your car accident case is complicated or involves severe or permanent disability, consider hiring a personal injury attorney. (To learn more about when you may need a lawyer, read Nolo's article Personal Injury Claims: When You Need a Lawyer.) If you've decided to consult a personal injury lawyer, use the form below to get in touch with a personal injury lawyer near you.

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