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Getting the Facts About Whiplash

People injured in car crashes sometimes experience a strain of the neck muscles and surrounding soft tissue, known commonly as whiplash. This injury often occurs when a vehicle is hit from the rear or the side, causing a sharp and sudden movement of the head and neck. Whiplash may result in tender muscles (Grade I) or limited neck movement (Grade II). This type of injury is usually temporary and most people who experience it make a complete recovery. If you have suffered a whiplash injury, knowing more about the condition can help you participate in your own recovery. This brochure summarizes current scientific research related to Grade I and II whiplash injuries.

Understanding Whiplash
  • Most whiplash injuries are not serious and heal fully.

  • Signs of serious neck injury, such as fracture, are usually evident in early assessments. Health care professionals trained to treat whiplash are alert for these signs.

  • Pain, stiffness and other symptoms of Grades I or II whiplash typically start within the first 2 days after the accident. A later onset of symptoms does not indicate a more serious injury.

  • Many people experience no disruption to their normal activities after a whiplash injury. Those who do usually improve after a few days or weeks and return safely to their daily activities.

  • Just as the soreness and stiffness of a sprained ankle may linger, a neck strain can also feel achy, stiff or tender for days or weeks. While some patients get better quickly, symptoms can persist over a longer period of time. For most cases of Grades I and II whiplash, these symptoms gradually decrease with a return to activity.

Daily Activity and Whiplash
  • Continuing normal activities is very important to recovery.

  • Resting for more than a day or two usually does not help the injury and may instead prolong pain and disability. For whiplash injuries, it appears that “rest makes rusty.”

  • Injured muscles can get stiff and weak when they’re not used. This can add to pain and can delay recovery.

  • A return to normal activity may be assisted by active treatment and exercises.

  • Cervical collars, or “neck braces,” prevent motion and may add to stiffness and pain. These devices are generally not recommended, as they have shown little or no benefit.

  • Returning to activity maintains the health of soft-tissues and keeps them flexible – speeding recovery. Physical exercise also releases body chemicals that help to reduce pain in a natural way.

  • To prevent development of chronic pain, it is important to start moving as soon as possible.

Ideal headrest position.jpg
Avoiding Chronic Pain

Properly adjusting the height of your car seat head restraint (head rest) will help prevent

whiplash injury in an accident. In an ideal

adjustment, the top of the head should be in

line with the top of the head restraint and there

should be no more than 2 to 5 cm between the

back of the head and the head restraint.

The information on this page highlights the latest available scientific research on whiplash and has been endorsed by the following organizations:


Insurance Bureau of Canada

Ontario Chiropractic Association

Ontario Massage Therapist Association

Ontario Physiotherapy Association

Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists

Avoiding Chronic Pain
  • Some whiplash sufferers are reluctant to return to activity, fearing it will make the injury worse. Pain or tenderness may cause them to overestimate the extent of physical damage.

  • If your health professional suggests a return to activity, accept the advice and act on it.

  • Stay connected with family, friends and co-workers. Social withdrawal can contribute to depression and the development of chronic pain.

  • If you are discouraged or depressed aboutyour recovery, talk to your health professional.

  • Focus on getting on with your life, rather than on the injury!

Treating Whiplash
  • Research indicates that successful whiplash treatment requires patient cooperation and active efforts to resume daily activity.

  • A treating health care professional will assess your whiplash injuries, and discuss options for treatment and control of pain.

  • Although prescription medications are usually unnecessary, temporary use of mild over-the- counter medication may be suggested, in addition to ice or heat.

  • Your treating health care professional may recommend appropriate physical treatment.

Tips for Returning Back to Activity
  • Avoid sitting in one position for long periods.

  • Periodically stand and stretch.

  • Sit at your workstation so that the upper part of your arm rests close to your body, and your back and feet are well supported.

  • Adjust the seat when driving so that your elbows and knees are loosely bent.

  • When shopping or carrying items, use a cart or hold things close to the body for support.

  • Avoid contact sports or strenuous exercise for the first few weeks to prevent further injury. Ask your health professional about other sporting or recreational activities.

  • Make your sleeping bed comfortable. The pillow should be adjusted to support the neck at a comfortable height.

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