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Whiplash Syndrome

Whiplash syndrome refers to neck pain that is generated from injury to the neck after a rapid backward and subsequent forward motion to the neck from an external source. These extreme motions can cause structures within the neck to move beyond their normal range of motion, resulting in subsequent damage. This mechanism of injury can cause damage to the ligaments, muscles, and potentially facet joints within the cervical spine. Typically these symptoms occur after a car accident where an individual is rear-ended but can also occur after other physical trauma or contact sports.


The primary presenting symptoms are typically neck pain or stiffness. The onset of pain is usually within 24 hours of the injury. Sometimes pain can be felt at the base of the skull, the back of the head or shoulders. Typically movement of the neck, especially in the flexed or extended position, exacerbates the pain. Relief can be found with rest and avoiding painful positions.

Possible causes

An external force usually causes whiplash syndrome. The most common cause is motor vehicle accidents where an individual’s car is struck from behind. Women are more prone to whiplash syndrome than men. Recent studies have indicated the rear impact from car injuries forces the lower cervical vertebrae (lower bones in the neck) into a position of hyperextension while the upper cervical vertebrae (upper bones in the neck) are in a hyperflexed position. This abnormal motion may cause significant damage to the soft tissues that hold the cervical vertebrae together (ligaments, facet joint capsules, muscles).


Your Center for Pain Management physician will work with you to determine the best treatment plan for your situation based on a thorough and accurate diagnosis. Our initial evaluation will include a complete review of your history, a detailed examination, and review or acquisition of appropriate imaging.

Mild cases of whiplash improve fairly quickly over time with usage of conservative options. Severe cases may require more aggressive treatment options. Options may include medications or physical therapy. Minimally invasive options geared towards localizing the structures responsible for pain may be initiated. These may include facet joint injections or medial branch nerve blocks under the suspicion that these joint capsules may have been damaged during the event or accident. If these joints are confirmed to be the culprit, the pain signals from these structures can be blocked from reaching the brain through a procedure called cervical medial branch nerve radiofrequency denervation.