When the head and neck are suddenly and forcefully whipped forward and back (or side to side), mechanical forces place great strain on the cervical spine (neck). Traumatic disc rupture and soft tissue damage can occur after such a whiplash injury. The cartilage between the disc and the vertebral bone can get cracked. This is known as a rim lesion.
Soft tissue around the facet joint can be injured. Many of the pain-sensing nerves of the spine are in the facet joints. The normally smooth surfaces on which these joints glide can become rough, irritated, and inflamed. Studies show that neck pain often comes from the damaged facet joints.
More than anyplace else in the body, the muscles of the neck sense sudden changes in tension and respond quickly. Tiny spindles in the muscles signal the need for more muscle tension to hold against the sudden shift in position.
The result is often muscle spasm as a self-protective measure. The increased muscle tone prevents motion of the inflamed joint. You may experience neck stiffness as a result. Other common symptoms associated with this type of injury include dizziness; shoulder pain; numbness or tingling in the arms, hands, legs or feet; and facial pain. Fatigue, confusion, poor concentration, irritability, difficulty sleeping, forgetfulness, visual problems, and mood disorders are also reported by many people after this type of accident.
If you have not had any treatment for this problem, there are nonsurgical treatments to help ease your pain and other symptoms. Medications, rest, short-term immobilization in a soft collar, or injections may be prescribed. You may want to see a physical therapist or chiropractor. Your health care providers will work with you to improve your neck movement and strength. They will also encourage healthy body alignment and posture. These steps are designed to enable you to get back to your normal activities.
Conservative care may take some time to bring about change. If one treatment approach doesn’t work, try another. You should expect full recovery to take up to three months. Integration of rehabilitation and manipulative therapy is central in getting back to your pre-injury status.
There is a strong emphasis on keeping as active as possible, which includes incorporating manual treatments and exercise. Before your rehab program ends, your healthcare team will teach you how to maintain any improvements you’ve made and ways to avoid future problems.