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Whiplash

Whiplash

What is Whiplash?

Whiplash occurs when your head moves rapidly in a back-and-forth motion out of your control, injuring your muscles and ligaments (tough fibrous tissues that connect bone to bone) in your neck. Whiplash may be referred to as a “neck sprain” or “neck strain”, but those terms can also include other injuries. Whiplash injuries are collectively referred to as Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAD).

Causes | Symptoms | Treatment | Prevention

What Causes Whiplash?

Most often whiplash is caused from being rear-ended in a car, but it can also be the result of a sports injury, such as a fall snowboarding or a football tackle, or a heavy blow to the head.

Medical illustration of a neck injury from Whiplash showing whiplash associated disorder (WAD).

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Whiplash?

The first symptoms of whiplash may not occur for a day or two after the initial accident, so it is important to monitor your symptoms and watch for any of the following after being in a car accident or other injury:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Difficulty and pain when moving the head and neck
  • Decreased range of motion of the neck
  • Headaches, usually starting at the base of the skull
  • Dizziness
  • Inability to move a joint
  • Tiredness

Less common symptoms associated with whiplash that you should see your doctor about are:

  • Blurred vision
  • Tingling or numbness in the upper back and arms
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in personality such as irritability or increased anger
  • Depression
  • Difficulty with your memory
  • Difficulty concentrating

What is Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAD)?

Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAD) refers to the collection of symptoms caused by whiplash and is graded on a scale, based on the severity of the symptoms.

What are the Levels of Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAD)?

Whiplash Associated Disorder (WAD) is measured on a scale from grade one to grade four depending on the severity of the injury.

  • Grade I: No physical sign of damage to the neck, but there you have pain, stiffness, and/or tenderness in your neck
  • Grade II: Decreased range of motion of the neck with pain, stiffness, and/or tenderness in your neck
  • Grade III: Signs of neck pain from earlier grades, and neurological symptoms such as reduced reflexes or difficulty concentrating
  • Grade IV: Signs of neck pain from grades I and II, and a neck fracture or dislocation

How is Whiplash Treated?

Mild whiplash can be treated at home and in a clinical setting. To ease the pain associated with whiplash, you can:

  • Rest
  • Heat and ice therapy
  • Avoid activities
  • Use anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease the pain

More severe levels of whiplash should be treated in a clinical setting.

Physiotherapy for Whiplash

A pt Health physiotherapist will assess your whiplash; depending on the cause and severity of your whiplash, treatment can include:

  • Strengthening and range of motion exercises
  • Manual therapy (joint and soft tissue mobilizations)
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Personalized exercise plan
  • A brace to support the neck
  • Assistive devices to improve neck support, such as therapeutic pillows
  • Functional retraining and activity modification
  • Pain relieving modalities such as
    • Therapeutic ultrasound
    • Heat and ice therapy
    • Electrical stimulation
    • Acupuncture

Can Whiplash go Away on its Own?

Yes, mild cases of whiplash can resolve itself after home treatment. However due to the complex nature of the injury, sometimes symptoms can resurface even months later, so seeking treatment at the time of the original injury is best for treating whiplash.

If you have sustained whiplash from a car accident, it is important to get an assessment from a physiotherapist, chiropractor, or family physician soon after the accident. If you have motor vehicle insurance, they will cover some or all of the costs for Whiplash Associated Disorder injuries.

Can you Prevent Whiplash?

Whiplash is often caused by a motor vehicle accident, so it can be hard to prevent, but steps that you can take are:

  • Ensure your car head rest is fitted correctly for you
  • Wear a seat belt
  • Use safe driving practices