Whiplash, also known as cervical acceleration-deceleration syndrome (CAD), occurs when the human body confronts the laws of physics. More specifically, when people accelerate, in a car or on foot, the parts of their body that are in motion will stay in motion unless an external force slows them down.
When a sudden impact, like a car collision, brings the body to a halt, the head wants to keep traveling. It yanks on the neck, snapping backward and forward, damaging ligaments, muscles and other soft tissues, and injuring vertebrae and vertebral joints in the process.
Those who have whiplash often develop neck pain and stiffness within several hours or, more commonly, a day after the accident. Other symptoms that may follow include headaches, blurry vision, shoulder pain, back pain, anxiety and dizziness.
Rear-end car collisions most commonly cause the injury, but collisions from the front and side, contact sports and convulsions can as well. Usually, someone in a stopped or slow-moving car gets hit from behind and doesn't have time to react; the whole cervical acceleration-deceleration process takes only one-twentieth of a second.
In rare and extreme cases, whiplash can cause a vertebral fracture, which can lead to severe spinal cord injuries. While the vast majority of whiplash injuries do not involve fractures that lead to instability, it's important to have your chiropractor or a medical doctor evaluate and manage the injury. In severe cases, this may necessitate the use of an MRI or CAT scan, and possibly a cervical collar to stabilize the neck.
If you have whiplash, there's no way to tell precisely how long your symptoms will last. Depending on the severity of the injury, some people suffer for years and others suffer just a few hours. Your chiropractor can determine the extent of your injury, estimate how long it will take to heal and offer care to speed your recovery.