By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Most of us don’t give much thought to our necks as we go about our day-to-day activities… Until we receive a dreadful wake-up call in the form of neck pain. Then, with almost every movement, it becomes terribly obvious just how much our necks actually do for us.
The neck supports the head, which of course houses the brain, and thus has a considerable responsibility: to protect certain very important nerves which send information from the brain to the rest of the body. Our necks truly play a large role in our health and well-being, so when they endure pressure due to whiplash, exercise, extra levels of stress, or sleeping wrong or in awkward positions, it’s quite literally, a pain in the neck!
What Is Whiplash?
If you’ve ever unexpectedly been hit by another driver while in a car, and then felt pain in your neck the next day, you have likely sustained whiplash.
Whiplash is the result of a sudden impact which forcibly propels the head to the front, the back or the side. One moment, for example, you’re idling at a stoplight and the next, you’re slammed into by a car from behind. While your seat belt holds your body in position, your head moves forward and back so abruptly that your neck is thrust out of its proper position. Keep in mind, whiplash can also occur when the head all of a sudden moves to the side or backwards, and is not limited to sudden front and back movements.
Once out of position, the neck becomes strained as does everything attached to it, including the tendons, muscles of the neck, and ligaments. This is why whiplash pain is not limited to the neck – it can spread to the shoulders and arms when it brings on spasms in the muscles. The lower back can be affected too.
How Long Does Whiplash Last?
With whiplash pain, there’s usually a 12-24 hour delay between the time the injury takes place and the time the pain and stiffness sets in. It’s also not uncommon for whiplash to become more painful as the days go by. It can take anywhere from a few days, to one week or even months for whiplash symptoms to cease. Some people continue to experience a certain degree of neck pain even after a year. This is where a chiropractor can help with whiplash (more on that below).
Causes of Whiplash
Although it’s most commonly associated with car accidents, whiplash can also be caused by:
- Horseback riding accidents
- Roller coaster rides
- Physical abuse
- Contact sports
- Certain types of trauma
Shaking a baby, for example, can cause whiplash (among other injuries to the baby), as can getting tackled during a friendly pick-up game of football. Also, the older we get, the more susceptible we are to whiplash caused by unexpected, reactive movements of our heads. People with existing back pain and a history of whiplash are more prone to it as well.
How do I know if I have whiplash?
To figure out whether or not you’ve experienced whiplash, here are some obvious symptoms to look out for:
- Neck pain
- Stiffness in the neck
- Pain in the shoulder(s)
- Pain in the arm(s)
- Back pain (including lower back)
- Jaw pain
When dealing with whiplash, it’s hard to turn the neck from one side to the other. This will likely be the most telling sign, after sustaining a trauma, that you have whiplash.
As spinal misalignment can cause a host of ailments in the body, other whiplash symptoms might include:
- Blurred vision
- Memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating
- Ringing in the ears
With these last symptoms, concussion may also be at issue, so it’s advisable to get medical attention and to rest for several days following the injury.
How do I manage whiplash pain?
First and foremost, keep your stress levels to a minimum. Stress can bring about more stiffness to the neck and whiplash pain than you may already be experiencing, adding insult to injury.
Pay attention to your posture and how you sit at your computer, especially during longer periods of time. Poor posture can lead to greater neck pain and a stiffer neck, as can sleep positions.
Some ways to help manage the neck pain at home are rather simple. Anything from applying ice packs to performing some simple stretches can help. Be sure to also avoid sports or strenuous activities. To help with acute pain, you can take over-the-counter medications for a few days, but avoid relying on this in the long term (your risk of heart attack and stroke increases).
While massage therapy is always an option, chiropractic relief is arguably the best route to go. When our neck or back vertebrae are misaligned, as can be the case with whiplash, the intricate communication between the brain and the rest of the body can get disrupted. Energy flow throughout the body gets blocked and the body’s innate healing mechanisms cannot work to their full potential.
4 Exercises to Help Alleviate Neck Pain
There are many exercises and stretches that can help you gain control and movement back in your neck after experiencing whiplash, such as these four detailed by Aubrey Bailey, a physical therapy expert, at Livestrong.com – you can do them within five minutes from anywhere – perfect when you’re short on time:
Exercise 1 – Through this first exercise, you’ll target the rotation of your neck. You’ll want to be sure you’re sitting up straight, and your posture should be maintained during the exercise. Simply turn your head from one side to the other, holding a stretch on each side for no more than 5 seconds. Repeat a maximum of 10 times.
Remember, your neck’s in a fragile place, so don’t overdo it. If you experience pain, then stop and try again only when the pain subsides. Try and work your way up to doing 3 sets of no more than 10 reps.
Exercise 2 – With this next exercise, you’ll focus on the flexion in your neck. Begin by tucking your chin down into your chest (not too far, you don’t want to stretch the neck just yet). Maintain this position for the entirety of the stretching. With your chin tucked, draw your chin further down and into the chest while feeling a stretch in the back of the neck. Be sure you feel it stretching, and hold it for a maximum of 5 seconds (try for a minimum of 3 seconds). Repeat this exercise about 10 times, working your way up to a target of 3 sets.
Exercise 3 – You’ll target the sides of the neck with this exercise. Again, be sure to sit up straight. While maintaining good posture, bend your head to one side so that your ear touches your shoulder or close as you can get to it. Hold this stretch for 3 to 5 seconds and then release. Repeat on the other side.
The goal is to perform this exercise about 10 times on each side, and work your way up to 3 sets. Just be sure to listen to your body and stop if you experience abnormal pain or strain.
Exercise 4: This last exercise is a neck extension exercise to enable you to begin looking up again, with your neck stretched all the way back. Your hands will provide resistance as you press back into the hands in this stretch. While sitting up straight and maintaining a good posture, place both of your hands on the back of your head. Begin extending your head backwards while using the hands as steady resistance, not making it easy for the head to extend all the way back. The goal is to get the head all the way back, and when you do go into that full extension, you’ll then release and repeat however many times you want.
All of these exercises are very beneficial to the neck and getting it back to the normal level of flexibility with no pain. Because other parts of the body can be affected by whiplash – like the shoulders, upper back and arms, it’s important to stretch out those areas as well for whiplash treatment. In addition to your own online research, visit your local chiropractor or doctor to learn more.
Prior to performing these stretches, it’s crucial that you speak with your doctor or chiropractor if you have symptoms of whiplash. You want to be sure you’re cleared so that you don’t bring about any new levels of pain, and/or make anything worse.
Also keep in mind, while performing these exercises it’s best to do them seated. Not only will this bring about less strain to the body, but it’s easier to keep your balance with seated stretches.
Lastly, even after the whiplash pain is gone, it’s important that you continue to exercise the neck area – don’t stop as soon as you recognize signs of relief.
Why is stretching my neck important?
A misaligned, painful or stiff neck is no picnic. Neck pain and stiffness bring about headaches and can strain so many other parts of the body, and result in discomfort to the back, the arms, and the shoulders.
In many cases, waiting too long can make it all the more difficult to get stiff neck muscles moving again once you finally do start stretching. Regularly stretching the neck strengthens it, and – as we mentioned earlier – a strong neck is so vital for total body health. It keeps the head properly aligned, which helps the spine to remain aligned, and, in the process, properly protects all the rest of the parts of the body. When your neck is strong, you can help prevent future neck injuries along with spinal injuries – a small investment for the big benefit of feeling “normal.”
About Dr. Brent Wells:
Dr. Brent Wells, D.C. has been a chiropractor for over 20 years and has treated thousands of patients. He founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in Alaska in 1998 and is considered to have the best massage therapy service you can find in Juneau.
Dr. Wells is a member of the American Chiropractic Association and the American Academy of Spine Physicians. He continues his education to remain active and updated in all studies related to neurology, physical rehab, biomechanics, spine conditions, brain injury trauma, and more.
- Cleveland Clinic. Whiplash. MyClevelandClinic.org, last accessed January 26, 2019.
- Mayo Clinic. Whiplash. Mayoclinic.org, last Accessed January 26, 2019.
- Bailey A. Neck & Back Exercises for Whiplash. Livestrong.com, last accessed January 27, 2020.
- Morrison G. Neck Strengthening Exercises. Spine-Health.com, May 16, 2017.
© Stephen Sinatra, M.D. and Brent Wells, D.C. All rights reserved.