Medical Specialties: Emergency medicine, Internal medicine, Physical medicine & rehab

Clinical Definition

Whiplash is an abrupt flexion or extension movement of the cervical spine. It can potentially damage or strain the neck muscles and ligaments through traumatic movement beyond the natural range of motion.  

In Our Own Words

Whiplash is a condition that occurs when the neck is thrown forward and then backwards in a rapid whipping motion, which causes injury to the soft tissue in the neck. The injury is common, but still not completely understood in terms of the exact cause of severe pain, muscle spasms, headaches and range of motion issues in the neck.


Many whiplash injuries are from car accidents, and the extent of the damage can vary, from soreness in the neck to more serious injuries affecting the joints, ligaments, muscles or nerve roots.


For very minor injuries, specialized imaging tests (e.g., CT scans or magnetic resonance imaging) are generally not recommended. But people with whiplash should see a doctor and consider taking an imaging test if symptoms involve numbness or weakness, worsen, become severe or don’t improve after 2 to 3 weeks. Depending on how serious the injury is, treatment may range from pain relievers, ice and stretching to physical therapy. 

Relevant Conditions
  • Cervical facet syndrome
Side Effects
  • Neck pain
  • Headache
  • Soreness in head, chest, shoulder or arms
  • Stiffness
Share this article
  • Cleveland Clinic. “Whiplash.” http://my.clevelandclinic.org. Accessed July 2013.
  • Harvard Health Publications. “Neck Pain.” http://www.health.harvard.edu. Accessed July 2013.
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. “Whiplash.” Updated May 2013. http://umm.edu/health/medical/ency/articles/whiplash. Accessed July 2013.
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