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Whiplash occurs when the head is suddenly forced forward and then snapped backward (or vice versa), as might happen in a car accident or sports injury or while being shaken. This may cause stretching or tears (sprains) of muscles and ligaments in the neck.

Neck pain caused by minor whiplash usually improves within 3 months with home treatment. More severe whiplash may take longer but usually improves in 6 to 12 months with occasional continuing pain.

Symptoms of whiplash are pain and stiffness in the neck for a few days following a whiplash incident. Symptoms may go away but then return a few days later. Pain and stiffness may affect muscles in the head, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Pain in the shoulders or arms, when moving the head, or pain that returns after going away for a few days, may be a sign of a more serious neck injury.

Symptoms of whiplash may be relieved with over-the-counter pain relievers (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen) and by avoiding activities, such as lifting or sports, that make the pain and stiffness worse. If pain persists or is intense, the doctor may prescribe pain medicines and recommend a soft neck collar to support the neck.

Last Revised: July 30, 2012

Author: Healthwise Staff

Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics

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