Last updated:

Reviewed by:

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Whiplash is a neck injury caused by sudden head movements usually in a traffic accident. It should last less than 2-3 months but can last over a year if severe.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash or is an injury to the neck caused by sudden head movement. It’s also called whiplash-associated disorder. 

Forward, backwards or twisting movements can cause injuries to the soft tissue in your neck, with traffic accidents being the most common cause of whiplash. 

You can also get whiplash from a significant fall or during some sports or activities. This causes an injury to the muscles and ligaments in your neck known as a sprain.

What are the symptoms of whiplash?

Common symptoms of whiplash are:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, arm, and back pain or stiffness

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Pain when swallowing

  • Unable to move your neck properly

  • Muscle spasms and pain in your shoulders and arms

Whiplash symptoms can be delayed and take several hours or even days to come on after your injury.

How is whiplash diagnosed?

A doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and how your injury happened. They will make sure there are no worrying signs that could mean something more serious has occurred. There are no tests that can tell you that you have whiplash.

How is whiplash treated?

Evidence has shown the most effective way of treating whiplash injuries is through movements and stretches. Make sure you continue doing everyday activities where possible and try not stay in one position for too long as this can help you to avoid getting stiff. Soft neck collars are not recommended for whiplash anymore because it’s important to move and exercise your neck.

You can help whiplash pain with painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. If your pain is not controlled by painkillers your doctor may prescribe a stronger painkiller to help.

Applying ice packs or frozen peas in a towel over the sore areas for 5-10 minutes a day for the first 2 to 3 days can also reduce pain and stiffness.  

If your symptoms are ongoing for longer than expected or your symptoms cannot be controlled, a doctor may send you to see a physiotherapist, pain specialist or for psychological support.

Exercises for whiplash

Frequently moving and stretching your neck can help your pain. Movements should be done slowly and with control. Some exercises you can do are:

  1. Try to touch your ear to shoulder without shrugging your shoulders

  2. Turn your head slowly side to side

  3. Bring your chin to your chest and then point your chin to the ceiling

  4. Shrug your shoulders up and down

  5. Circle one arm at a time both backwards and forwards

  6. Push the side of your head against your hand. Hold for at least 10 seconds then release slowly. Repeat with the front and back of your head

 You can build these exercises up over time but it is important to start slowly. It is best if you can repeat them 10 times a day eventually. They can initially cause some discomfort, but this should improve as you continue to do them. As you stretch you should be able to move your head further each time.

The more controlled movement you can do the faster your recovery will be. If you’re not sure what exercises are best for you, seek advice from a physiotherapist or a GP.

When should I seek immediate help?

Call 111 or see a doctor if:

  • The pain is severe despite paracetamol or ibuprofen use

  • Your arms or legs feel weak

  • You’re having new problems with going to the toilet or having accidents

  • You’re having trouble walking or sitting

  • You have an electric shock feeling in your neck, back, arms or legs

  • You have tingling or pins and needles on one or both sides of your body

  • If your pain has lasted 6 weeks and you can’t do most of your normal activities


Last updated:
Reviewed by:
undefined, Lead GP at Livi