What is whiplash? 

Whiplash is a neck injury caused by forceful, rapid back-and-forth movement in your neck. This can be forward and backward, or side-to-side movement. It mimics the cracking of a whip, hence the name whiplash. Doctor’s will sometimes refer to it as “hyperextension injury.” 

As the head moves rapidly in one direction, the muscles of the neck get an order from your nervous system to contract and shorten to protect. The opposite movement that occurs afterwards will then pull abruptly on these contracted/shortened muscles causing them to become strained, or sprained. Microtearing also occurs in the muscle tissues of the neck and sometimes the shoulders and back as well. 

Sprains and Strains are explained here:

  • Strain – involves injury to a muscle, or the connective tissue that connects the muscle to the bone (ie: tendon).
  • Sprain – involves injury to the connective tissue that holds bones together (ie: ligament).

Whiplash is commonly caused by car accidents but can happen from other physical traumas. 

What are the symptoms of whiplash? 

Symptoms develop within days of the injury. Common symptoms include:

  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Worse pain with neck movement
  • Lowered range of motion in the neck
  • Headaches
  • Tenderness or pain in the shoulder, upper back, or arms
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Some people may also experience blurred vision, tinnitus (ringing in your ears), sleep disturbances, irritability, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and depression. Most people recover from whiplash in a few weeks.

What are the different stages of whiplash?

There are four stages to whiplash:

Stage 1

In a car, your back will flatten against the seat as it pushes forward and your head will move backward. This is caused by the car moving forward while your body isn’t.

Stage 2

Your body moves forward up to 2 times as fast as the car, but your head is still moving backward. This creates an s-curve in your spine.

Stage 3

Your body moves back into the seat, but your head and neck are moving forward very quickly. 

Stage 4

This is the most damaging stage of whiplash. Your body is stopped by your seat-belt and can’t move, but your neck continues moving forward. This puts a lot of strain on muscles and ligaments, can tear fibers in your spinal disks, and force vertebrae out of alignment. You can also get brain injuries during this stage.

Keep in mind that Whiplash can happen with other types of physical traumas, but involve similar back and forth movements as discussed above. Examples of other traumas are: tumbling over the handlebars of your bike, face-planting in the snow while snowboarding, or a rough horseback riding incident. 

How is whiplash diagnosed?

Whiplash can usually be diagnosed by a thorough physical exam by your doctor, or sometimes is done by a physiotherapist. Because damage to soft tissues can’t be seen on X-rays, other tests (CT scans, MRIs) may be necessary. 

How does massage help with Whiplash? 

Whiplash causes micro-tears in muscles and other tissues, which are repaired by scar tissue. This scar tissue can be misaligned, and massage therapy can help relax and somewhat align the scar tissue, while also relaxing the tension in the muscles, so you don’t have so much pain and regain mobility.

Massage increases blood flow and nutrition distribution. This effect can greatly speed up the healing process for someone who has recently had whiplash. In doing so, massage can then decrease the chances of having chronic issues after an accident. 

  • Myofascial work helps to increase the hydration and fluidity of the tissues, freeing up movement of the muscles, ligaments and tendons.
  • Friction-based massage techniques will help to break up any scar tissue that is, or has formed and increase mobility and range of motion.
  • Trigger Point Therapy works by decreasing the nervous system firing to painful points in the body to decrease tension held in affected muscles.
  • Any type of massage that stimulates circulation, relaxes you and your muscles and calms the nervous system can help to reduce and prevent headaches.
  • Finally, the accident or trauma that occured could have been quite unsettling and “traumatic.” Massage can help calm the mind and reduce the stress on your body, to help you work through any emotional issues resulting from the incident.

What are the best types of massage for whiplash?

Most massage therapists will use a method called cross-fiber friction. It works in the opposite direction of the muscles to decrease scar tissue and loosen scar tissue that attached to other structures.

Deep tissue massages also work well. This type of massage loosens up muscles and tissues deeper in your body, which can help relieve pain and increase your range of motion.

Myofascial release massages target trigger points in your muscles that cause pain. By massaging them, the muscles can go back to their normal state, therefore relieving pain.

RAPID Neurofascial Reset massages can reach deep into your muscles and other tissues to relieve tension and pain. This massage can be done on its own or as a precursor to another massage. This form of massage serves to reset the body’s pain responses and if very quick and effective!

Finally, cupping can also work. This involves suctioning cups to your skin at specific pressure points to relieve pain and increase circulation.

Does it hurt to have whiplash massaged? 

As with any therapeutic massage, you can feel some amount of discomfort, but it should never be unbearable. The goal is to relieve whiplash symptoms, so make sure you are communicating with your RMT as to how you are feeling throughout the treatment. 

Massages are meant to be relaxing for your body and mind, so any pain needs to be brought up to your therapist. They can try doing something else, change pressure, or move to a different spot on your body.

After the massage, you will experience much less pain and stiffness than you did before. There could be some post-massage soreness for 24-48 hours following the massage as we will have literally “worked out” the tissues, so please ensure that you follow your post-massage home-care recommendations and drink lots of water!

How many massage treatments are recommended? 

A typical treatment is 8-12 sessions with one session a week. You should be nearly 100% recovered at the end of this treatment period given that your body responds well to treatment, you complete your home-care instructions, and you have no further, or additional traumas. 

Repetitive movements at work, or re-injury can cause your recovery process to take longer. Please take care of yourself during the healing process of the delicate neck muscles.

What can I do at home to help my whiplash?

You should rest for the first few days after the injury and move gently and slowly. Do not stop moving entirely, but ensure that you are not damaging your neck tissues further. 

Make sure to avoid activities that make your pain worse. You can use ice, heat, or a combination of both in alternation to reduce pain in the first few days as well. Over the counter medications can also help relieve your pain. Please ensure that you speak with your doctor about any medications prior to taking them to see if they are recommended for you.

You can also do some exercises to relieve the pain and help increase your range of motion. You can rotate and tilt your head side to side, move the neck forward and backward, and roll your shoulders in circles.

Getting massage therapy is said to be the most effective way to relieve the symptoms of whiplash. A combination of therapies is always recommended (ie: massage, physiotherapy, acupuncture, etc.). Healing faster and reducing the debilitating symptoms, will allow you to get back to being you!

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