Whiplash is a common injury, with more than two million Americans experiencing the condition yearly. While the injury can occur outside of a traffic accident, collisions are the primary source of most reported neck injuries. Physical therapy (PT) for whiplash is the primary treatment option, but many people choose to allow their neck to heal without intervention.
While passive healing can work, it is likely best to seek intervention because resting can worsen the injury. Physical therapy is one of the best ways to avoid troubling symptoms and more serious medical interventions.
Whiplash is a neck injury resulting from the sudden and violent backward and forward motion during a collision or impact. The force of the incident causes the cervical spine’s natural C-shape to become an unnatural S-shape temporarily, which can cause damage to facet joints, intervertebral discs, and other neck structures.
A physical therapy center will work with patients to determine the cause of the injury and how best to minimize or eliminate its symptoms. With an effective treatment plan, patients can learn to manage and mitigate their pain while working to restore functionality to the injury site.
Causes of Whiplash
While most people beginning whiplash physical therapy will go to treatment because of a car accident, whiplash injuries are not exclusive to such incidents. People can experience whiplash because of a fall or sports impact. Also, older people are more likely to experience whiplash than younger individuals.
Age plays a role in whiplash injuries because older people tend to deal with more limited movement, meaning muscles lose strength and flexibility. The loss of crucial function, even when subtle, increases the likelihood of injury in forceful events.
However, even younger people are susceptible to impact injuries. The force of a collision and the point of impact tend to be the strongest indicators of potential injury.
Symptoms of Whiplash
Whiplash typically has a delayed manifestation. Many people do not experience symptoms for several days after the initial incident.
When symptoms begin to present themselves, they usually appear with pain and stiffness first, slowly evolving to more troublesome issues like:
- Shoulder, back, and arm pain
- Tingling and numbness
- Reduced range of motion
Physical therapy for whiplash will address and often mitigate most, if not all, of these problems. However, it is crucial to see a medical professional when you experience any of the above or any of the following symptoms:
- Memory problems
- Difficulty focusing
- Sleep disturbances
- Blurred vision
While most cases of whiplash are minor, the condition can worsen. Beginning physical therapy sooner rather than later is the best course to avoid compounding or permanent injuries.
Physical Therapy for Whiplash
In the simplest terms, physical therapy is an exercise program to help rehabilitate the body, improving immobilized or impaired movement through stretches and strength and endurance training. While the practice might seem a little involved for a simple neck injury, it is the best therapy for restoring natural movement. PT encompasses many types of treatment, like sports therapy and post-surgical rehabilitation.
The primary goal of physical therapy services when treating whiplash is to reduce inflammation and avoid progressive damage. There are several manual therapy techniques and tools therapists use to determine and execute a treatment plan, ensuring the patient is safe and remains so the entire time. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) provides whiplash treatment guidelines.
Before an individual can undergo whiplash physical therapy, the therapist will request imaging of the neck and spine to ensure all structures are intact. The neck contains several nerve, vein, muscular, and skeletal structures, and it is one of the most complex and delicate areas of the body.
Ensuring the structure and elements of the neck are healthy and free of damage is crucial before starting therapy. Attempting to exercise and stretch the neck when areas have underlying damage is reckless and dangerous.
Imaging provides a clear understanding of the injury and allows therapists to provide thorough treatment suggestions, including clients receiving further medical intervention when necessary. It is standard practice at our facility to request and review imaging for any neck and spinal injury.
We offer several treatment options for personalized care at our physical therapy clinic, but the common treatments for whiplash might include electrical stimulation, range of motion exercises, stretching, and light strengthening work.
Range-of-motion therapy can help alleviate symptoms of stiffness and inflammation. The movements will relieve pressure on specific areas and encourage increased blood flow, providing more nutrients and oxygen to the injury zone.
Light strengthening helps rebuild weakened and damaged neck muscles, restoring supportive structures and reducing pain. With time, muscle-building exercises can also help prevent injuries in the future, which is why PT is an integral part of sports medicine.
Beyond manual physical therapy for whiplash, patients will also experience passive therapy during their sessions. Passive therapy means the patient does not have to participate in the session actively. Instead, the therapist takes control and maneuvers the body into different positions or applies pressure to help offer relief.
An example of passive therapy is massage. Massage helps by applying targeted pressure and increasing blood flow to specific areas in the body. In effect, passive treatment has many of the same benefits as other treatment options, but it allows the patient to take a break.
If there is one thing every whiplash patient wants to know, it is how long recovery takes. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to such inquiries, especially with whiplash injuries, which can vary significantly in severity.
For most patients, full recovery from whiplash can take up to three months. However, many patients will experience significant progress after a couple of weeks of dedicated therapy.
Dedicated therapy means commitment in sessions and at home. Most physical therapists will give patients exercises and stretches to perform at home. Progress typically comes quickly for those patients who abide by the at-home instructions.
Importance of Treatment
It is usual for whiplash patients to want to rest after the injury and avoid whiplash physical therapy. While it is OK to rest for a few days, it is bad to avoid treatment for longer than that.
There is a saying with whiplash injuries, “rest equals rust.” While you will not experience literal rust, too much rest exacerbates the stiffness, weakness, and pain of the injury. Therefore, the longer you wait to seek treatment or become an active participant in therapy, the more pain you will experience and the more progressive the injury will become.
Advantages of Physical TherapyAfter a Car Accident in New Jersey
Going to a physical therapy center after a car accident is beneficial to your recovery. The advantages go beyond neck injuries.
Your body experienced significant trauma during the collision, and you likely have more than one injury, even if it isn’t immediately apparent. Seeking treatment early can help diagnose injuries before they become symptomatic, allowing you and your therapist to get ahead of the curve.
Early intervention leads to several significant benefits, not the least of which is pain management. Early adoption of physical therapy treatments allows you to take full advantage of all PT has to offer.
Reduced Recovery Time
The primary benefit of physical therapy for whiplash and other injuries is the reduced recovery time. When you commit to treatment and a therapist, you commit to a process with compounding benefits.
The goal of PT is to progressively restore mobility, flexibility, and strength through targeted stretches, exercises, and treatments. The key is progressive treatment, treating your recovery like a construction project, building a foundation on strength and biomechanics.
Avoidance or reluctance of therapy tends to prolong recovery. When patients ignore home exercises or miss appointments, it is easy for injuries to stagnate or worsen.
One of the primary objectives of a physical therapist is to reduce inflammation. They work to reduce or eliminate inflammation through massage and targeted exercises. When successful, the routine helps to increase and restore natural blood flow to the affected area, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the injury site.
Patients who avoid physical therapy might suffer from persistent inflammation, resulting in worsening injuries. Inflammation causes a buildup of pressure around an injury site which can compress nerves and restrict red blood cell access. If inflammation persists, it can cause tears in muscles, tendons, or ligaments, extending overall recovery time.
Reduced Long Term Risks
Because whiplash physical therapy aims to restore natural movement and function to the neck, it reduces the likelihood of scarring. The strength training aspect of treatment also reduces the odds of similar injuries occurring in the future.
Additionally, when patients commit to treatment at a physical therapy center, it is possible they can avoid surgery and potential range of motion restrictions. Fast action typically leads to better results.
Mount Prospect Health Center: Quality Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Care in Newark, NJ
Have you been in a car accident, and are you experiencing stiffness and soreness in your neck? You might have whiplash. Our experienced specialists can provide targeted chiropractic care and physical therapy for whiplash, quickly getting you on the road to recovery and back to a pain-free life. Because our therapists specialize in auto collision injuries, they understand the common issues most accident victims experience.
If you are experiencing neck pain, do not wait for the symptoms to subside, be proactive and call Mount Prospect Health Center to schedule an appointment. Our physical therapists and chiropractors accept most health insurance plans, including no-fault and PIP (personal injury protection). Call us today. Same-day appointments may be available.
About Dr. Terry McSweeney
Dr. McSweeney was born in Cork, Ireland, and has lived in New Jersey since 1986 when he started practicing Chiropractic Medicine in Newark. He opened the door to his private practice “Mount Prospect Health Center,” in 1989, focusing on family and general chiropractic and then expanding to acupuncture and pain management. His bi-cultural background and focus on community collaboration and participation have led him to volunteer opportunities and community leadership roles. Dr. McSweeney graduated from undergraduate school at McNeese University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and received his chiropractic degree from Texas Chiropractic College. Dr. McSweeney is certified in Manipulation Under Anesthesia and is a member of both the New Jersey Chiropractic Society and American Chiropractic Society; he is also a board member of the Mount Prospect Partnership and director of Mayor Quintana’s Health Program.
About Mount Prospect Health Center
Mount Prospect Health Center is a multi-disciplinary medical facility located in Newark, NJ. Our specialties include chiropractic, orthopedics, pain management, and physical therapy.
Call (973) 566-5572 to book your appointment and get on the road to recovery!