How Long Can Whiplash Last? Know the Facts

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Did you know that almost 5.9 million vehicle crashes occur in the US, on average, each year? In the state of New York alone, 434,596 crashes occurred in 2018.

That’s right.

And these accidents are among the main causes of whiplash injuries. Every year, these injuries affect a staggering two million Americans. And while considered “minor trauma”, it can still cause pain and immobility both in the short and the long run.

And by “long” run, we not only mean months but years after the injury.

The question is, what exactly is whiplash? How long can whiplash last, and how can such a “minor” injury take a long time to heal? Most importantly, what are your options for treatment?

We’ll get to bottom of this common vehicle crash injury, so be sure to keep reading!

The Human Neck: A 101 on Its Anatomy and Function

To fully answer the question, “how long does whiplash last?”, we need to go back to neck basics. Understanding its roles will give you a better idea of how whiplash symptoms can last for a long time.

The spinal column and cord start both begin at the neck. The neck contains seven vertebrae, the bony segments found in the spinal column. This section of the spinal column is the cervical vertebrae.

These bones form the neck structure, while also carrying and supporting the skull. They also help protect the spinal cord, along with all the tissues and nerves attached to it.

If one of the parts of the neck, such as a muscle or a tendon, gets injured, the effects could spread. This is how whiplash injury can also result in problems affecting other parts of the body.

What Is Whiplash and How Does It Happen?

Whiplash is an injury that affects the soft tissues located in the neck. It occurs due to a sudden and forceful forward-and-backward “jerking” or “yanking” of the head. It’s much like the action of cracking a whip, which is where the term comes from.

That sudden jerking movement can then overstretch the neck muscles and ligaments. As with any type of sprain or strain, whiplash can stretch these soft tissues to the point of tearing.

Whiplash can result in both neck sprains and strains. A neck sprain affects the muscle fibers and tendons, while a strain injures the tendons.

A sprain can completely or partially tear the soft tissues in the neck. A strain can tear the tendons (bands of tissue attaching the muscles to the bones). A strain can also cause the tissues to pull away from the bone.

Either way, these injuries most often result from rear-end collisions. Other common causes are amusement park rides (like roller coasters) and playing sports.

The fact that it doesn’t take a lot of speed to sustain a whiplash injury is one of the reasons it’s very common. Studies have shown that 90% of whiplash injuries occur at speeds of less than 14 mph. In fact, they can even happen at speeds as low as 5 mph.

Common Whiplash Symptoms to Look Out For

In most cases, whiplash symptoms develop within the first 24 hours after the injury. Sometimes though, it can take days or even weeks for these symptoms to appear.

If you’ve been in a car crash, especially a fender-bender, pay attention to the following signs.

Pain, Stiffness, and Loss of Mobility in the Neck

Since a whiplash injury causes torn soft tissues, pain often follows immediately. The neck muscles can also become stiff or “knotted up”. A stiff neck can also happen due to injuries of the cervical vertebrae.

The pain and stiffness can then reduce the neck’s range of motion. The pain could be even worse every time you move your neck. The pain is usually worse when you try to look over your shoulder.

Headaches

Headaches are also common side effects of vehicle crashes, including fender-benders. Some studies estimate that up to 70% of whiplash patients suffer from headaches.

Headaches from a whiplash injury often start at the base of the skull and can spread out from there. These are also known as neck-related or “cervicogenic” headaches.

Pain or Tenderness that Extends from the Neck

Back, shoulder, and arm pain can also be symptoms of whiplash injuries. These issues can be due to a nerve in the neck becoming compressed. The sudden jerking of the neck can “squash” the nerve roots, injuring them or making them inflamed.

Nerve compression can also cause a tingling or numb sensation in these areas. Sometimes, the feeling can radiate all the way to the fingers. Also, the muscles in these parts—even in the hands—may feel weak.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, a car accident neurologist can help. They will determine if your headaches or numb or weak muscles are due to compressed nerves.

Vision Problems

Whiplash injuries can also cause visual disturbances, especially in more serious neck trauma. Experts estimate that up to 35% of neck trauma patients experience eye pain. Aside from pain, double vision can also occur.

Vertigo or Dizzy Spells

Vertigo and dizziness are also common, affecting 25% to 50% of whiplash patients. Vertigo can give you a feeling of being off-balance or lightheadedness. You may even feel as if the world is spinning or that you yourself are spinning.

Some people who develop vertigo can also suffer from nausea, which can cause vomiting. Whereas frequent vomiting can lead to stomach-related problems.

Facial or Jaw Pain

One study found that of 50 patients, 44 or 88% had frequent complaints of facial or jaw pain. The researchers noted that this was a symptom of a chronic whiplash-associated disorder.

A separate study also linked whiplash injuries with altered facial skin sensitivity. It found that whiplash can increase or decrease the facial skin’s thermal sensitivity.

Although rare, this symptom can still be a serious health hazard. For starters, it can make you either less or abnormally tolerant to heat. You may feel hotter than most people, or it may take you a longer time than normal to feel the heat.

This may then make you more prone to heat-related injuries of the skin. For example, you may not feel that the sun is burning your skin when in fact, you already have a sunburn.

So, How Long Can Whiplash Last? Whipping out the Truth

According to researchers, full recovery usually happens within the first three months. In some people, complete healing can take as little as a few days, while for others, it’s several weeks.

However, this is only true for 50% of those who suffer from this neck injury. The remaining 50% of whiplash patients are at risk of developing long-term disabilities. These disabilities also contribute to a lower quality of life.

These risks should already prompt you to see a medical professional right after a car crash. Early diagnosis and treatment can help lower the odds of long-term whiplash-related disability.

Pain and Suffering That Persist a Year After the Injury

Previous studies have found that neck pain can persist up to a year after a whiplash injury. This occurs in up to half of the people who develop whiplash-associated disorders.

Researchers also say that the greater the initial pain, the higher the risk for long-term pain. Also, the more whiplash symptoms you experience at first, the slower your recovery may be.

Another study looked at how whiplash can affect a patient’s ability to work a year after the injury. They divided the patients based on risk, separating them into seven groups. Group 1 was the lowest-risk group, while Group 7 was the highest-risk group.

The researchers found that nearly 4% of patients in Group 1 were still unable to work after one year. Patients in Group 7 had it worst, with 7.68% of them being unable to work a year after their injury.

Recovery from Whiplash-Induced Concussions

In the US, up to 1.7 million people sustain traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) each year. 80% of these are “mild” head injuries, most often in the form of concussions.

Concussions are often caused by a blow to the head. It can also result from whiplash though, which can literally shake the brain.

Although classified as mild, recovery from these injuries can still take seven to 10 days. Within this period, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and confusion usually occur. Ringing in the ears, feeling “dazed”, slurred speech, and fatigue are also common.

As if that’s not enough, 30% to 80% of patients develop post-concussion syndrome. Worse, 15% of them will still suffer from concussion symptoms one year after the accident.

The Five-Year Long-Term Effects of Whiplash

Unfortunately, more severe cases of whiplash can still affect victims after five years. In one study, 40% of victims of grade-2 whiplash reported health dissatisfaction. They were also twice as likely to report pain compared to those without whiplash.

Overall, pain and headaches persisted five years after the whiplash injury. Psychological issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, were also present.

Getting a Whiplash Injury Diagnosis

As soon as you’re able, visit a doctor who specializes in car crash injuries like whiplash. During your check-up, the doctor will examine your head, neck, arms, and back. This will help the physician determine the extent of your injuries.

The doctor will ask you to perform simple movements with your head and arms. Use descriptive words, like “stabbing pain” or “throbbing sensation”. You may also want to grade your pain level, such as using 1 to 10, with 10 being the most painful.

The car accident doctor may also have you undergo imaging tests like x-rays, CT-scans, or MRIs. These tests will help detect abnormal changes in your bones and soft tissues.

Common Treatment Methods for Whiplash Injuries

The primary goal of whiplash treatment is to manage pain and make your neck mobile again. By achieving these goals, you can resume your normal activities. Moreover, proper treatment can help prevent long-term consequences of whiplash.

What exactly goes into your treatment will depend on how severe your whiplash injury is. In minor cases, over-the-counter painkillers and home care are enough. However, if there’s too much pain involved, it’s best to include physical therapy as well.

Besides, being dependent on painkillers could have serious health effects. Just think of how big the prescription opioid problem in the US is. In 2017 alone, there were 47,600 overdose deaths involving an opioid.

That said, you might want to opt for chiropractic treatment for whiplash instead. This will involve the controlled manipulation of the cervical vertebrae. These adjustments can help restore the natural alignment of your neck bones.

Now, “manipulation” may sound painful, even scary. Don’t worry though, as the chiropractic doctor has full control of these movements. They use only enough force and gentle movements to bring back the mobility of your neck.

By realigning your vertebrae, chiropractic adjustments can reduce your whiplash symptoms. What’s more, this treatment can help the body, including the neck, heal itself.

This is why up to 35 million Americans opt for chiropractic treatment each year. Also, chiropractic care is no longer an “alternative” treatment. Today, it’s a growing licensed health care profession in the US.

Don’t Let Whiplash Put You at Risk of Long Term Disability

There you have it, all the answers to your question, “how long can whiplash last?” As you can see, it can vary widely, with some experiencing it only for a few weeks. Some are more unfortunate, still suffering from its consequences half a decade later.

This is why you should never shrug off the symptoms of whiplash. As soon as you can, start your search for a car accident doctor. This way, you can determine the extent of your injuries and from there, get the treatment you need ASAP.

Ready to seek medical help for your car crash injuries? Then please feel free to check out our extensive list of accident doctors in New York! The sooner an accident doctor attends to you, the lower your risks of long-term disability.