Whiplash - How it Occurs and How it's Treated

Approximately every 13 minutes, someone in the United States suffers from whiplash. That’s over 120,000 people per year, according to Right Diagnosis. This means that in a week’s time, 2,307 people have experienced a sudden and forceful stress to their necks, resulting in anything from mild bruising to stiffness, instability, peripheral pain and numbness, and a range of whiplash-related disorders.

While whiplash can occur with a variety of activities, including high-impact sports, roller coasters, and bungee jumping, it most commonly occurs with rear-end car collisions. While the other incidences of whiplash can be largely prevented (by not participating in high-risk activities), it is difficult to remove your risk of whiplash while driving; after all, car accidents, especially rear-end collisions, are largely out of your control.

That said, there are a few things you can do to either prevent whiplash or prevent the severity of whiplash and its symptoms while you and your family are on the road.


1.     Wear your seatbelt. It’s not only the law and an excellent idea; it reduces the severity of injuries by 50%. Make sure the lap portion of the belt lays flat across your hips and that the shoulder belt crosses your body at your collarbone. Do not tuck the shoulder strap under your arm!

2.     Adjust your headrest. The top of your headrest should be no higher than the upper tips of your ears.

3.     Adjust your seat.  Your headrest should be within two inches of your comfortable driving posture. Reclining your seat too far back or slumping forward while driving or riding in the car will increase the distance between you and one of the biggest allies you have against whiplash. Position yourself accordingly.

4.     Choose wisely. When in the market for a new car, truck or van, pay close attention to where the headrests are in relation to the passengers. While safety factors have dramatically improved in the last twenty years, much of the automotive industry focus has been on airbags and not neck injuries; even 10 years ago, almost 66% of all SUVs, pickups, and minivans didn’t offer enough whiplash protection according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.


What makes whiplash different from other instances of cervical strain and sprain is its severity.
“The symptoms of whiplash can be complicated and difficult to diagnose, especially if the patient appears otherwise ok,” adds Dr. Donald Hope, our neurologist at the Center for Cranial & Spinal Surgery in Reston and Fairfax. “Additionally, it can take several hours and even days for pain, stiffness, headaches, and peripheral numbness or weakness to manifest themselves.”


If you have been injured in a car accident, sports activity, or other trauma, it is important to seek treatment right away to determine the extent of the injury and to learn more about what to expect. “Typically, the earlier we can start treatment, the better and faster the recovery,” adds Dr. Hope. “The sooner we can monitor and address the issues, the less likely the incidence of long-term side effects, degeneration, and other physical consequences.”

Dr. Donald Hope