Whiplash Symptoms

If you suspect you have the symptoms of whiplash, reading this article about whiplash symptoms is not a substitute for visiting a doctor at the earliest possible opportunity.

The medical information in this article is compiled from the NHS Choices, eMedicineHealth, MayoClinic, NetDoctor, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Web sites.

What causes Whiplash Symptoms?

People suffer whiplash symptoms due to a sudden, forced movement or jerk. The most common cause is a car crash – due to sudden deceleration or acceleration. The soft tissue in the spine is stretched and strained. Some whiplash symptoms may also be caused or made worse by other related injuries that occur at the same time – like dislocations or micro-fractures.

The exact human physical mechanism that causes whiplash injuries is not fully understood medically . A whiplash injury is typically the result of impulsive stretching of the spine – mainly the anterior longitudinal ligament that is stretched or torn due to the head snapping forward and then back again. However, this is not always the case and a doctor will need to assess if some other sudden movement might have resulted in the whiplash symptoms.

The most likey cause of whiplash symptoms is the head snapping forward and then backward suddenly. While rear-end car collisions are the most common cause of whiplash, it can also be caused by sporting activities, accidental falls, objects falling on heads, and physical assaults. Shaking children can result in whiplash as well as more serious spinal cord or brain injuries.

A car crash as slow as 15 miles-per-hour (24 kph) might produce enough energy to cause whiplash.

What are the most common symptoms of whiplash injuries?

Almost everyone has a few of the most common symptoms of whiplash injuries:

  • Neck pain
  • Stiffness and tenderness in the neck
  • Difficulty moving neck around
  • Headaches
  • Muscle spasms (side or back of neck)
  • Swelling in the neck
  • Stiffness in the back of the head
  • Shooting pain from neck to shoulder or arms
  • Sensory disturbance (for example, pins and needles in the arms and legs)
  • Referred pain to the shoulders or arms
  • Increased fatigue

Note: List whiplash symptoms compiled from NHS Choices, eMedicineHealth, MayoClinic, NetDoctor, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Web sites.

These are the most common whiplash symptoms and may take a few days to appear. Immediately after the accident, you may also experience dizziness, shoulder pain, or pain in either or both arms, or weakness/tingling of arms or legs, and blurred vision.

If you have whiplash symptoms, you should see a doctor as soon as possible because there may be related injuries that only a doctor can identify.

Are some Whiplash Symptoms Dangerous?

Some whiplash symptoms are potentially very dangerous. It is possible to experience memory loss or even periods of unconsciousness after a particularly serious car crash. Some signes that the whiplash may be serious include severe pains in the back of the head, pins and needles in the shoulders and arms, or a sensation of heaviness in the arms. An ambulance should be called immediately.

In addition, the most common whiplash symptoms of headaches and neck stiffness can result in a lack of sleep, which in turn can result in lack of concentration and other possibly medical problems. Poor concentration could easily result in additional accidents.

Grading Whiplash Symptoms

The Québec Task Force published report called Redefining “Whiplash” that defines different grades of what they called Whiplash-Associated Disorder (WAD):

  • Grade 1: neck pain, stiffness or tenderness only but no physical signs are noted by the examining physician.
  • Grade 2: neck complaints and the examining physician finds decreased range of motion and point tenderness in the neck.
  • Grade 3: neck complaints and neurological signs such as decreased deep tendon reflexes, weakness and sensory deficits.
  • Grade 4: neck complaints and fracture or dislocation, or injury to the spinal cord.

These grades grades are not official and certainly not used Ireland. However, they provide a good idea of the different physical levels of whiplash symptoms.

How does a Doctor Diagnose Whiplash?

Diagnosis of whiplash injuries is very difficult. Doctors will typically place very close attention to the exact circumstances of the accident to try to understand the potential physical strains. The doctor will look for external trauma signs – such has bruises, cuts, or abrasions. The doctor will press the skin in specific areas to determine the location of pain or tenderness. The patient will be asked to make neck movements in all directions. The doctor may even check the reflexes of the joints of arms and legs. Because there are no tests for most whiplash symptoms, the doctor will also rely heavily on the patient to help diagnose the exact level of whiplash and therefore the appropriate medical care required. Whiplash cannot be seen on an MRI scan, CT scan, or X-ray, although an X-ray is taken if there is a suspicion of fracture or dislocation of the cervical spine.

Whiplash symptoms that appear very rapidly sometimes indicate potentially severe injuries and longer-term complications. People trying to fake whiplash to make a whiplash injury claim can be identified by doctors by claiming too many symptoms and claiming that the symptoms appear too soon after an accident.

If you are brought directly to an emergency room, x-rays may be taken of the neck bones to make sure there are no fractures or signs of other serious injuries. The primary focus of attention will be a spinal cord. The doctor will review these x-rays and order further imaging with a CT scan or MRI if required. However, it should be remembered that whiplash cannot be seen on an MRI scan, CT scan or X-ray and these tests are to diagnose more serious injuries.

The term whiplash is not actually a medical term and your doctor may use the more specific terms like cervical sprain, cervical strain, hyperextension injury, or even simply a soft tissue neck injury.

How does a Doctor Treat Whiplash Symptoms?

There is no single treatment for whiplash and only your doctor can determine the appropriate remedy. In the short term, it is likely that the doctor will recommend painkillers and then possibly the services of a physiotherapist.

Long-Term Whiplash Symptoms: Whiplash Syndrome

A very small number of people develop ongoing whiplash symptoms and develop what is known as whiplash syndrome. They suffer ongoing headaches and pain, reduced movement at the back of the neck, tingling in the arms, lumbar pains, fatigue, sleep disruptions, and even reduced libido. Whiplash syndrome is difficult to treat and can persist for months or even years with long-term neck pain.

Whiplash Injury Claims

The amount of compensation in whiplash injury claims depends on the the medical history and prognosis. For example, a whiplash victim who needs repeated visits to a doctor and multiple refills for pain medication prescriptions will receive higher compensation than a victim who requires minimal treatment or pain relief. Whiplash is a strain injury and like other strain injuries typically lasts for a few weeks or months. If you are out of work for this period, you will be entitled to compensation for loss of earnings. Your solicitor will ask questions about the accident circumstances and will need medical records, which is yet another reason to see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you have whiplash.


  • Whiplash symptoms are caused by the sudden snapping forward and back of the head, hyper-extending the muscles and other soft tissues of the neck and upper spine.
  • Although more common as the result of a car accident, whiplash symptoms can manifest after similar head movements in sporting accidents, when hitting your head in a fall or being violently shaken.
  • Irrespective of the cause, as soon as you start to develop whiplash symptoms you should see a doctor as the pain from the whiplash may be disguising other injuries.
  • Whiplash symptoms will usually be treated by a doctor using painkillers and physiotherapy. However, whiplash symptoms can develop into whiplash syndrome which may take several years to cure.
  • Once treatment has been administered, if your whiplash symptoms were caused in an accident which was not your fault, you should speak with our solicitor on our free advice service.

Special Disclaimer:
This article should not be taken as medical advice – you should always see a doctor as soon as possible. The information in this article is only to provide a broad understanding of the topic and is not in any way complete. Due to the rapidly changing nature of medical research regarding whiplash symptoms and treatment, the Legal Advice Ireland can not be held responsible for the reliability, accuracy, timeliness, usefulness, and completeness of the content. You should never ignore medical advice from a doctor. You should never self-manage any health problems. You should always see a doctor as soon as possible if you have any whiplash symptoms.

Copyright © 2009-2019 Eoin Campbell

Eoin P. Campbell About the Author
Eoin P. Campbell is an honours law graduate (LL.B) and qualified solicitor whose primary professional experience is the area of litigation and in particular personal injury claims. Eoin P. Campbell is currently lecturing in law at two universities in Lyon, France.