Whiplash injury is a type of neck injury caused by sudden movement of the head forwards, backwards or sideways.

It occurs when the soft tissues in the neck become stretched and damaged (sprained).

Whiplash will often get better within a few weeks or months, but for some people it can last longer and severely limit their activities.

Symptoms of whiplash

Common symptoms of whiplash include:

  • neck pain and tenderness
  • neck stiffness and difficulty moving your head
  • headaches 
  • muscle spasms
  • pain in the shoulders and arms

Less common symptoms include pins and needles in your arms and hands, dizziness, tiredness, memory loss, poor concentration and irritability.

It can take several hours for the symptoms to develop after you injure your neck. The symptoms are often worse the day after the injury, and may continue to get worse for several days.

When to get medical advice

Visit your GP if you’ve recently been involved in a road accident, or you’ve had a sudden impact to your head and you have pain and stiffness in your neck.

They’ll ask how the injury happened and about your symptoms. They may also examine your neck for muscle spasms and tenderness, and may assess the range of movement in your neck.

Scans and tests such as X-rays will usually only be carried out if a broken bone or other problem is suspected.

Causes of whiplash

Whiplash can occur if the head is thrown forwards, backwards or sideways violently.

Common causes of whiplash include:

  • road traffic accidents and collisions
  • a sudden blow to the head – for example, during sports such as boxing or rugby
  • a slip or fall where the head is suddenly jolted backwards
  • being struck on the head by a heavy or solid object

Treatments for whiplash

Whiplash will usually get better on its own or after some basic treatment.

Treatments for whiplash include:

  • keeping your neck mobile and continuing with your normal activities – using a neck brace or collar isn’t recommended
  • painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen – stronger painkillers are available on prescription if these don’t help
  • physiotherapy, exercises and stretches

If your pain lasts a long time, you may be referred for specialist treatment and support at an NHS pain clinic.

Painkilling injections and surgery aren’t normally used for whiplash.

Read more about how whiplash is treated.

Outlook for whiplash

The length of time it takes to recover from whiplash can vary and is very hard to predict.

Many people will feel better within a few weeks or months, but sometimes it can last up to a year or more.

Severe or prolonged pain can make it difficult to carry out daily activities and enjoy your leisure time. It may also cause problems at work and could lead to anxiety or depression.

Try to remain positive and focus on your treatment objectives. But if you do feel depressed, speak to your GP about appropriate treatment and support.