PT Tip of the Month Archive

Whiplash and Whiplash Associated Disorders (WAD's)

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash is a condition that results from rapid acceleration or deceleration forces being exerted on the neck. The mechanism of injury for whiplash can include:

  • Motor vehicle accidents (especially rear-end collisions)
  • Severe falls onto the shoulder / upper body
  • Sports injuries involving a direct blow to the head / neck
  • Sudden and forceful pulls of the arms / upper body
  • Other related trauma to the head / neck

Whiplash most commonly occurs as a result of motor vehicle accidents. The impact causes a sudden and forceful transfer of energy to the neck that can result in a number of bony or soft-tissue injuries.

The posterior and anterior longitudinal ligaments, which limit excessive forward and backward bending of the spine, are commonly injured in whiplash. Intervertebral ligaments, which attach one vertebra to another, are often sprained as well. Included are the interspinous ligaments, ligamenta flava, and the supraspinous ligament.

Localized neck pain can also be produced from straining the muscles in the neck. Commonly sprained muscles in the front of the neck include the sternocleidomastoid and scalenes. The upper trapezius, levator scapulae, and splenius capitis are frequently strained muscles in the back of the neck.

Whiplash injury can often tear the annulus fibrosis surrounding the discs in the neck. This will cause localized neck pain but can also lead to a herniated disc (see Herniated Lumbar Disc in Tip of the Month archive). Herniated cervical discs have the potential to compress cervical nerve roots, producing radiating pain in the shoulders, arms, and hands.


Depending on the severity of the injury, whiplash symptoms will usually begin a few hours to a few days after the accident. The most common complaints include pain in the neck and upper back, headaches, numbness and/or tingling in the arms, and referred shoulder pain. These symptoms will often be accompanied by muscle spasms in the neck and upper shoulders. Range of motion in the neck will often be limited and painful.

More severe symptoms may include dizziness, nausea, vertigo, difficulty swallowing, and an inability to move the neck even slightly without severe pain. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should contact your physician immediately.


Whiplash symptoms result from injury to the muscles, ligaments, and/or joints within the neck. An evaluation by one of our physical therapists can help determine the exact source of your pain. An individual treatment plan will then be developed to help decrease your symptoms and get you on the road to recovery. Initial treatment may include the application of modalities such as heat / ice, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and traction to help decrease your pain. Initial exercises may include gentle ROM and stretching. When tolerated, strengthening exercises will be introduced to ensure proper posture and support of the spine. Please contact one of our two locations to schedule an evaluation if you or someone you know has whiplash.

33 Pond Avenue, Suite 107B Brookline, MA 02445 Tel: (617) 232-PAIN (7246) Fax: (617) 232-5196
1208B VFW Parkway, Suite 202 West Roxbury, MA 02132 Tel: (617) 325-PAIN (7246) Fax: (617) 325-7282